Four Ways Big Data Can Improve Your Life

What does all this data mining do for you?

4 September 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

Big-data company Next Big Sound compiles data from an array of social media sites, helping music industry insiders learn more about up-and-coming artists and make smarter decisions about which acts to book for concerts and festivals.

Each time you conduct an online banking transaction, create a personal profile on a website, or even drive on a highway, you’re contributing to the growing amount of data that can be analyzed and put to use by almost any industry, including retail, financial, and even the entertainment business.

So what are you getting in return for all this personal data being collecting? Here are four ways that big data is being used to benefit your daily life.

BETTER CUSTOMER SERVICE

A survey by Bain and Co., a global management consulting firm, found that while 80 percent of CEOs said they believed their companies provided superior customer service, only 8 percent of customers agreed. One way that companies are working to solve that discrepancy is by using big-data analytics.

When Mexico-based bank Grupo Financiero Banorte had a smaller number of branches, employees knew each of their clients. But as it became one of the country’s largest banks, it lost the ability to understand customer’s needs. By using big data, Banorte has gained insight into its account holders’ banking behaviors, such as whether they visit branches or neighborhood ATMs (automated teller machines), or if they prefer to do their banking online. This has led the bank to redesign its systems so that employees can access the information and offer personalized products and services that best suit each person’s needs.

Big-data analysis not only helps companies forge better relationships with consumers, but it can also help protect against fraud. Western Union, a financial services company that handles close to US $80 billion in money transfers each year, has more than 200 terabytes of data, and that data is growing at a rate of 100 terabytes per year. The company uses Hadoop open-source software to scan its huge stream of data to monitor transactions that might be the result of a scam. When it finds a potentially fraudulent transaction, Western Union can immediately block it.

A FASTER COMMUTE

Many drivers use GPS and map apps to find an unfamiliar location or use an alternate route to avoid traffic jams. All the data they collect  is being used to predict problem areas on the road and help drivers find a way around them.

Inrix, a company that specializes in real-time traffic data around the world, powers a variety of in-vehicle navigation systems, mobile apps, and commercial fleet management systems. Even cellphones that don’t have GPS and an Internet connection are sharing location data with Inrix through cell towers. All told, the company’s data sources cover more than 2.9 million kilometers of roads worldwide, and its total volume of traffic data, which it crunches constantly to generate real-time information, is more than 500 terabytes.

Data is also being collected and used at the local level. A traffic management service in Woodbridge, N.J., for example, collects cell phone signals from drivers traveling on the state highways that run through the township to spot patterns like bottlenecks. Law enforcement officials have even rescued disabled cars that have caused traffic to slow to a halt, giving them the ability to clear the roadway within minutes.

FINDING YOUR MATCH

If you want to know whether certain people are relationship material, just ask them three questions: “Do you like horror movies?” “Have you ever traveled around another country alone?” and “Wouldn't it be fun to go live on a sailboat?”

The answers to these questions are ones that couples agree on most often, according to OkCupid, a popular online dating site. It discovered this by analyzing large amounts of data on members who ended up in long-term relationships. Dating agencies collect this data from answers to hundreds of questions answered by new subscribers. The dating site Match.com estimates that it has more than 70 terabytes of data about its customers. Analyzing these treasure troves of data is helping the agencies provide better matches for their customers.

Sometimes, the data can even be manipulated to form unlikely matches. OkCupid recently admitted on its blog that it runs experiments to see whether its matchmaking algorithms actually work. In one controversial experiment called the “Power of Suggestion,” the service intentionally matched clients with other subscribers who were incompatible with them to see if, based on the company’s suggestion, these pairs would form bonds with one another despite their differences. Almost 20 percent struck up a conversation that continued for an average of four messages—a significant exchange in the world of online dating.

PERSONAL ENTERTAINMENT

It’s common at many concerts to see people tweeting, uploading pictures, and updating their Facebook statuses rather than watching what’s happening on stage. While it may seem like viewers are distracted, these activities are having a positive effect on live entertainment by helping organizers plan future shows based on what fans are posting and discussing online. For example, big-data company Next Big Sound compiles such data from an array of social media sites, helping music industry insiders learn more about up-and-coming artists and make smarter decisions about which acts to book.

Troy Carter, who is Lady Gaga’s ex-manager, used data culled from her millions of Facebook and Twitter followers to learn more about what songs her fans want to hear to help compile set lists for upcoming shows, and what merchandise was popular. This led him to create LittleMonsters.com, an online community of more than one million fans, where members can talk about music and fashion and form friendships based on common interests.

Do you think the pros of big data like the ones listed above outweigh potential risks, such as concerns about privacy? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

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