The Rise and Benefits of Big Data

In The Wall Street Journal’s “Big Data is on the Rise, Bringing Big Questions”, author Ben Rooney explores the business significance of Big Data through his coverage of the Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford event and examination of the varied benefits of Big Data analysis. In particular, Rooney discusses that while many businesses are aware of the concept of Big Data, “only about 6% of companies have got beyond a pilot stage” of a Big Data initiative, “and 18% are still in one”. Dean of Oxford’s Said Business School Peter Tufano theorizes that while these companies are interested in Big Data analysis for the financial benefits, many are still not sure as to how Big Data can best serve their company’s needs.

Though some individual business have not yet determined exactly how Big Data can benefit them, “those companies that are able to use data effectively are more likely to win in the marketplace”. For example, in the field of personal location data, “some $100 billion of value can be created globally for service providers”. Additionally, the power of Big Data is not proven simply in profits; “John Aristotle Phillips, Chief Executive of Aristotle International” said that while “[the] election was not won because of Big Data…the use of data analytics had a material effect on outcomes” of the most recent presidential election.

In spite of these benefits, however, consumer-driven companies are not embracing Big Data as quickly as some would expect. “Andrew Grant, Chairman of Satalia, a U.K. university spinout that applies algorithms to optimize Big Data, suggests” that for many consumer-driven companies, “cultural obstacles are the biggest impediment” to Big Data implementation. Rooney also discusses that some consumers may find the predictive powers of Big Data to be off-putting; “[the] richest examples of Big Data are to understand consumer behavior and optimize your product for it”, and some customers prefer less targeted marketing tactics.

Chicago as the New Silicon Valley

In Amy Scott’s article “Creating the Next Silicon Valley in Chicago” for Marketplace, she discusses the possibility of an upcoming technological boom in Chicago. Specifically, she references the presence of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign as a potential source of talent for such a boom; the school itself is widely respected, but “its students are often drawn to other shores”.  Talent retention has been a concern for Chicago in the past, as “[founders] of Youtube, Paypal, and Yelp also studied there before heading west”. To help solve this issue, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “[wants] to draw the talent [to Chicago]”, and believes that “the companies will follow”.

To achieve this goal, Chicago is emphasizing the creation and maintenance spaces in which companies and new technologies can grow. The Merchandise Mart, “a massive building of showrooms and shops”, is becoming such a hub. Motorola Mobility now occupies space within the building, as do 100 startups sharing office space.

An issue that Chicago is facing, however, is the overall culture within the city; according to Margaret O’Mara of the University of Washington, Silicon Valley is unique in its “extraordinary tolerance or risk and failure”, and that such a culture doesn’t yet exist in Chicago. If that cultural impediment can be overcome, however, Chicago holds great potential for new companies. Lightbank, “a venture capital firm run by the co-founders of Groupon” has already begun changing the economic culture of tech startups in the city, having invested in 53 companies after only 18 months. If such trends continue, the potential technological success of Chicago would likely have far-reaching economic implications for the Midwest as a whole.

Voting Online and Computer Security

In his piece entitled “Why We Still Can’t Vote Online, and Why That May be a Good Thing”, Marketplace’s David Brancaccio responds to an article (“Why Can’t We Vote Online?” from the Verge) concerning the questions regarding and possibility of election voting being conducted online. The Verge’s article presents a thorough overview of the issue, taking into consideration the desires of American voters, political leaders, and the logistical hurdles that would have to be overcome for online voting to be a possibility.

Each article addresses some of the major hurdles in the concept of online voting. First, there seems to be an apparent “lack of enthusiasm when it comes to getting a working online voting system up and running” (Brancaccio). Though Dave Mason, “a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, said that ‘it’s just a matter of time until people demand that we vote on the internet’” (Sottek), that time is apparently not today; according to The Verge, there is very little in the way of citizen demand for online voting systems. Secondly, “any system for online voting would need governmental approval from jurisdictions across the country” (Brancaccio), which in itself presents a significant logistical issue.

However, the largest issue facing the implementation of online voting is that of security. Building a hack-proof system that would remain secure even on potentially compromised personal computers is a gargantuan task. Because of the importance of voting and the “stakes of [an]…election”, voting will most likely remain a pen-and-paper affair for now (Brancaccio).

The App Market and Location-Based Services

In Computer Weekly’s article “Apple iPad App Pushes the Location-Based Cloud”, author Adrian Bridgwater discusses how location-based service technology is currently being used in apps for Apple devices. In particular, he discusses how these technologies relate to the increasing prevalence of cloud computing-based resources and devices. Additionally, he discusses to main types of location-based services: “push” LBS, “pull” (also known as “query”) LBS, and a multi-user LBS service, which is the article’s primary focus.

Specifically, Bridgwater explores the benefits and potential pitfalls of an app called Find My Friends. Find My Friends allows users to view each other’s current locations using their iCloud Apple accounts. Additionally, the app can be used in more specific situations; rather than broadcasting one’s location to one’s friends at all times, Find My Friends allows users to “share [their] location with a group of friends for a limited time”. It can be used to monitor when others leave or arrive at a certain location, and can also distribute that information to one’s own contacts.

While Find My Friends certainly has great potential benefit for users, it also presents a new opportunity for developers to create “a new breed of apps that allows us to interact with each other based on where we are [and] what we’re doing”. However, such possibilities do come with potential privacy concerns. As location-based sharing requires the permission of each user to be fully utilized, individuals’ particular privacy settings could affect the efficacy of LBS-reliant applications. Nevertheless, the increased prevalence of cloud and LBS applications identifies an area of great potential within the apps market.

Crowdsourcing and Online Job Creation

Crowdsourcing is quickly becoming a powerful productivity tool in the modern market. In many fields, crowdsourcing solutions are ultimately cheaper and more efficient than traditional methods. This trend of increased efficiency and decreased cost is particularly noticeable in the realm of the voice-over; in an article from Marketplace, “Could Crowdsourcing Talent Online Create Jobs?”, author David Brancaccio explores the effect that crowdsourcing has had on the voice-over industry, and what these effects imply regarding the future of the market.

In particular, Brancaccio focuses on a company called VoiceBunny. VoiceBunny is an online service that allows clients and voice actors to more easily connect with one another; “client offers a script online and people who know how to read aloud offer their services”. Additionally, the software itself helps clients find the most suitable talent for their specific script.

Ultimately, this service is significantly cheaper for companies because of the lack of overhead costs. Rather than hiring voice over actors, perhaps renting studio space, and distributing the final recording themselves, companies are able to get a good-quality voiceover for “$11…plus a $2.20 service fee”. Because they work as independent contractors, the voice-over artists themselves are responsible for providing and maintaining their own equipment. Additionally, VoiceBunny offers podcasting services; through these services, clients can purchase spoken versions of their articles. These spoken versions can then be distributed by VoiceBunny or by the authors themselves.

Because of its cheapness and its ease of use, however, VoiceBunny does have interesting implications regarding the future of the voice-over market. Though many voice-over artists still receive the majority of their income “from bigger gigs outside of [the VoiceBunny] service”, many of the jobs available on VoiceBunny are ones that, in the past, would have gone to more local voice-recording artists. What was once a local market has become a globalized one and, consequently, more people are able to offer and be paid for their services. Indeed, services like VoiceBunny have the potential to change how the market as a whole operates; it is not inconceivable to imagine that hosting duties of local radio shows may one day be crowdsourced as well.

Private Apps in the Public Sphere

In an article from CNET, “New York City Puts the Brakes on New Uber Cab-Hailing App”, author Steven Musil discusses the expansion of Uber, a company that creates “private car-summoning” apps. In particular, Uber is working to create smartphone apps that would allow people to not just see where taxis are in relation to themselves but allow them to hail said cabs from the app itself. I have to say that the idea behind the app is rather creative; it’s a service that seems to be rather obvious on the face of it, just a means to efficiently hail a taxi using modern technology. The difficulty of implementation seems to come in at the contractual level, though.

Specifically, it seems as though Uber has come up against quite a lot of bureaucratic red tape while trying to expand into viable markets. In particular, they are having issues expanding into cities which may already have their own cab-hailing apps in the works; in New York City, for example, Uber has been possibly prevented from operating because the Taxi & Limousine Commission prefers to meet and “work collaboratively with the livery, black car, and taxi industries to address their concerns about the impact of apps on existing business models”. Uber has had similar difficulties in other cities such as Boston and Washington D.C., but said difficulties were ultimately resolved. I can understand the need for limitations as new companies extend into new territories, but the fact that a “lack of national guidelines” resulted in a cease and desist letter, I have to wonder if there aren’t opposing factors or special interests involved. However, progress is being made toward balancing municipal and private interests.

eBay and Big Data

eBay’s revenue is largely dependent on big data; by using, sorting, and filtering massive amounts of data, eBay makes sure that their customers see information that is catered to their individual interests.  I suppose when people deal with the concept of Big Data so much on a daily basis, they start to think of other ways to usefully implement Big Data concepts. Even questioning the productivity of their own servers displays some thinking outside the box on eBay’s part.

Which begs the question: if a savvy tech company like eBay is able to save millions of dollars by applying Big Data concepts to their own servers, how much could other companies that deal with large volumes of data save?  This is the relatively unexplored potential use of Big Data; Lisa Arthur mentions in her Forbes article “The Surprising Way eBay Used Big Data Analytics to Save Millions” that eBay’s success demonstrates the “critical importance of tearing down corporate silos”.  eBay’s initiative should be the start of a widespread scramble for companies to save money by using and improving their own infrastructure. What are other points in the process that people can gather data from?  How many millions of dollars could it save?  These questions are probably running through the heads of creative data analysts around the clock as they work to find new and innovative ways to put Big Data to work.

Big Data and the Damage of Droughts

Despite the awful droughts of the summer, many farmers have been able to avoid economic disaster with the help of big data; as discussed in Wired’s “Big Data Shows Hyperlocal Harshness of 2012 Drought”, crop insurance companies have been processing large amounts of weather data in many states and using it to accurately determine appropriate amounts of financial compensation for drought-damaged crops. In addition, by compiling the data, these companies are able to display a close-up, detailed view of the drought’s impact on America’s crop yields as a whole.

One insurance company that seems to be taking a great interest in this modern face of insurance is The Climate Corporation, a six-year-old crop insurance company based in San Francisco. By doing daily measurements of ambient temperature and soil moisture, the company can determine exactly how many days presented crop-damaging levels of stress and provide financial aid accordingly. In addition, the large amounts of data processed can be used to predict future temperatures, precipitation levels, and subsequent crop yields with unrivaled accuracy.

For example, The Climate Corporation tracked the number of days in which temperatures and soil moisture reached the “heat stress” and “wilting” points in one particular Oklahoma farm. For every day that the crops suffered these undesirable conditions, the farm’s owners were compensated by a certain amount of money per acre. In this case, the farm spent most of the summer in the heat stress zone and the entirety of July and August in the wilting zone; fortunately, these recordings ensured that the farm received the economic assistance it needed in order to avoid major losses.

While the crop insurance data helps to secure the business against major losses, The Climate Corporation claims that it is possible that climate conditions could become so poor that crop insurance wouldn’t make economic sense. In that situation, farmers would have to either accept lower profit margins or raise their prices; over time, such difficulties could make farming unsustainable in some areas. Fortunately, however, that point has not yet arrived; in spite of the severity of this summer’s drought, The Climate Corporation states that it was not unprepared for it; CEO David Friedberg remarked that, “It’s not like a 99.999-percent thing that we never accounted for… We can have a good sense of the range of uncertainty.”

As a resident of a state whose income is heavily crop-based, I have to admit to a good deal of relief; without protections like these, it’s probable that my own community would have been far more devastated by the hardships of this past summer than it was. Also, I really like the idea that, by analyzing all of this data, these crop insurance companies are going to be more capable of predicting problems like these in the future; that way, our farmers will have more of a chance to prepare for them, and we might be able to avoid the worst of what nature has to offer. Chalk one up for big data!

Crowdsourcing the Dictionary

In hopes of discovering and recording new and creative words, the staff at the UK’s Collins English Dictionary has begun crowdsourcing the entries in their dictionary. Collins, which added “crowdsourcing” to its own dictionary in 2009, is asking internet users to contribute their own words to this project. So far, there’s been a good response; “[in] the first two weeks of the initiative, there were 2,637 suggestions from more than 2,000 different users.”

While the Boston Globe’s article “Crowdsourcing the Dictionary” initially suggests that Collins’ project may initially seem more similar in nature to online dictionaries such as Urban Dictionary, it soon becomes clear that the concept of dictionaries incorporating user-submitted content is not in fact a new one; the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, put out its first call for user submissions in 1879. Rather, it is the ease of submission to and user influence on the dictionary that makes the Collins English Dictionary unique. While Merriam-Webster has a similar word submission project called Open Dictionary that has received “nearly 20,000 suggestions from users since…2005”, the Merriam-Webster editors use it simply as research inspiration. In contrast, the Collins English Dictionary aims integrate user submissions with their current online dictionary.

This project has interesting implications for future projects both within and outside of the lexical world. While soliciting user input is not a new business model for dictionary groups, the amount of moderated, user-generated content within Collins’ final product is unique. Though Collins’ model of user-based submissions makes improvements on past models, there is still much progress that could be made in terms of user interactivity and influence. However, such concessions are necessary if a specific level of quality is desired for the final product.

The Internet Association

The Internet Association will be the “first and only trade association representing Internet companies and the interests of their users,” President and CEO Michael Beckerman told Mashable.  The goal of the Internet Association is to work towards “political solutions that will push for protecting a free and open Internet” and, according to Beckerman, to defend the Internet from what its members view as excessive regulation. Mashable’s “Internet’s Biggest Companies Joining Forces to Lobby Washington” article reports that there are many more companies included in the Internet Association, but the entirety of the group’s members won’t be disclosed until September.

The question then becomes a matter of policy. Made up of companies whose monetary value is staggering, the Internet Association has the potential to carry considerable weight in politics; however, how will the organization decide what stance to hold when there is such a large group of people to protect? The organization’s creation is likely a response to policies like SOPA and PIPA, and having an association to lobby against these policies will help protect users of the Internet, but it also has the potential for negative impact.  Currently, there is no global association that has the final say on the Internet. This lack of a global ruling body on the Internet means that countries will individually decide what to do with the Internet, and in America, for better or for worse, means that businesses with money will influence democracy.

So how will the affect the average Joe? It will depend on the policies that the Internet Association supports, but I am optimistic that this organization will fight for the users.  Technology companies are especially mindful of those who use their products, as the relationship between the consumer and the business is very close amongst tech companies, and I’m hopeful that the same will be true of the Internet Association.