big data is informing the world of tomorrow, today

Big data analytics is finding application in all sorts of interesting areas, beyond helping companies target their products more accurately. It is empowering public bodies to make sense of the massive volumes of data being produced by modern society to help combat obesity, track influenza epidemics and reduce traffic congestion.

happier, healthier cities

One of the key  benefits big data tools give us, is that we are able track what people are doing, where and when – in real time. Being able to track and analyze data on this scale, means we are no longer reliant on statistics that can be weeks, months or even years out of date – a national census for example, or years-old medical records.

In the US, the Hedonometer project monitors and scores numerous Twitter feeds to gauge levels of happiness and health in a similar way to the Google Flu Trends initiative. Cities with higher levels of obese people more commonly tweet the words ‘heartburn’ and ‘starving’, for example. This helps municipalities to better target adverts for public health and awareness campaigns for example, and health campaign results can be evaluated more quickly.

Hedonometer is not a new term by the way, it dates back to the 19th century – but it has taken big data to give the idea wide-reaching, real-world applications.

tracking epidemics

Big data played a big role in tracking the H1N1 outbreak of 2009, which began in Mexico. Through access to call records, the Mexican authorities were able to establish the amount of people who had been to three key locations in one of the worst-hit areas. This enabled a comparison of government-ordered closures versus population presence, while human behavior simulation and comparative analysis using big data can help to guide government action in the event of a pandemic.

Simpler real-world applications of big data include satellite navigation in cars. Devices today can monitor data and work out if there is a traffic jam up ahead of you, communicate that to you and advise you to take another route. Big data can identify hotspots and implement preventative measures.

for the common good

In Glasgow, Scotland, there is a currently a Future Cities project underway which showcases another innovative use of big data. Glasgow City Council and its project partners are now making use of big data to create a central ‘City Dashboard’ which gives citizens access to information about traffic, weather, waiting times for emergency services and more – all in real-time. The data is drawn from multiple sources and feeds, analyzed and combined before being transmitted through the dashboard. Citizens can access the information through smartphone apps wherever they are.

Other practical implementations of big data around the world include Birmingham’s HiTemp project, where lamp-posts are fitted with sensors that monitor weather data and transmit information about cloud cover to local authorities – allowing for hyper-local weather forecasting. In Norway there are over 40,000 online bus stops where travelers can leave records of their travel experiences, both positive and negative. They can leave messages for friends or for complete strangers – and the bus stop automatically tweets the information to a central database.

In Seattle, USA, 3,000 items of rubbish were been geo-tagged by MIT to track them and work out how efficient existing recycling and waste programs were. And the London School of Economics has partnered with Ofcom in the UK to analyze computer literacy and attempt to reduce the ‘digital divide’ of communications skills. The possibilities for real world big data projects are endless.

predictions coming true

Between the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and big data projects, it looks very much like we are seeing the realization of Professor Mike Batty’s 1997 prediction that everything that surrounds us will have become a type of computer by the year 2050. Attaching sensors to objects and tracking their lifespans and use gives us a whole new level of insight into human interaction and daily habits.

‘Big data’ does not simply mean ‘big’ and ‘fast’ – it tells us stories and enables us to initiate projects that have tangible effects on real lives. In a deeper, more detailed way than ever before.

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