Big data — Do you really know how big it is?

Image source: Tech Donut

Data is everywhere. At almost every opportunity it is now gleaned off our actions and our interactions with the world around us to inform any number of metrics through the services we use. The sheer quantity of this information is big data.

Putting it into perspective

Bureaucracy and policy making through collected data is almost as old as formalised writing and data has only become easier to gather with the increasing sophistication of information systems and with the interconnectivity of the online world. From healthcare and Fitbits, to mass migrations and mapping conflict intensity during the Arab spring to electrical grids remaining functional while millions of households switch their kettles on at halftime during world cup finals, data has impacted and eased billions of lives around the globe through its collection, analysis and the often hard industry decisions it informs. The practice is still evolving and with the introduction of 5G infrastructure across the western world, global lockdowns leading to a sharp rise in ‘living virtually’ and new access to the virtual world in nations without pre-existing reliable internet infrastructure through industry growth and new players such as Facebook and Elon Musk’s Starlink joining the fray — a larger volume of data than ever before is being collected, cleansed, standardised, centralised and integrated into building influential data supply chains.

These supply chains have the potential for monumental positive impact throughout the globe but they also hold the keys to carnage. Cambridge Analytica and other social media campaigns have demonstrated that the commodification of access to the blue-prints of individuals’ thoughts and
habits can be utilised by and for any agenda, from predicting crises to destabilising nations, swaying ‘informed’ democratic votes and inciting unrest- through organising overseas protests and counter protests from the comfort of your own home.

How big is big data?

At the turn of the 21st century companies such as Target using their in house analytics could deduce from shopping habits whether their customers were pregnant and accurately estimate their due date sometimes before the shopper knew. They could also map how to best incentivise customers to return; these practices and predictive marketing techniques would foresee customer needs and result in shoppers reliably returning time and time again. Companies did this through close analysis of the shopping habits and limited access to movement data of tens of thousands of their customers.

A little over a decade later an average day in 2012 saw Facebook collecting more than 500 terabytes of data from its 900 million users, Google was processing about 24 petabytes and Twitter — renowned for users’ concise
posts produced almost 12 terabytes daily.

Facebook is a prime example of social media user growth; from 2012 to 2020 the number of active users worldwide has trebled to 2.7bn granting intimate access to a wider range of people on a second by second basis than any census in world history. This wealth of data combined with market forces, increased computational sophistication and AI development has enabled the blurring of boundaries between data produce by humans and about humans. As Jeff Seibet, former Director of Product at Twitter says “Every action on these platforms is carefully observed, tracked, monitored and recorded.” transfiguring the human user into observable, predictable and malleable data points.

Source: Statista

The data collected by big tech companies provides what IBM calls, ‘’an accurate, actionable 360-degree view of the customer”. This data harvesting is of immense value to companies able to harness its potential as corporations are able to build more agile data driven business models and target new custom while building more established and insightful relationships with increasing consumer trust.

Whilst tech monopolies and corporations able to adapt benefit, Western democracies and their processes have been slow to respond. The relationship governments forge with big data will shape the next century of economic and political combat. Andy Boyd — a data scientist at the university of Bristol — sets out a three pronged relationship between diplomacy and science that shaped the latter half of the 20th century which resembles the equivalent in data today. These important contentious topics will shape the world stage for generations to come. There is considerable topic overlap between the categories, however each presents a differing perspective and end result even if they are born of the same project/loci.

These are:

  • Data for Diplomacy - The practice wherein data experts interact to create a platform for relationships.
  • Diplomacy for Data — The practice where stakeholders interact to advance data, data use and data interpretation.
  • Data in Diplomacy — The infusion of data, and expertise on data into relations between nation-states or other entities.

Aside from directly corporate interests, global healthcare treads all three of these groups. The Covid-19 crisis starkly highlights the need for swift national responses to medical data that transcends national boundaries; expert directed collaboration serves as hugely important conduit for diplomacy. Recently this type of discussion has been led by the World Health Organisation and epidemiological experts who have created an international platform in the interest of public health, enabling policy makers to respond more effectively to global crises. Another example of which is the sharing of mortality stats across Africa, which was rigidly established during the Ebola epidemic and has been of paramount importance in crisis response ever since.

Management surrounding these types of platform leads to framework creation and shared and standardised data processing techniques that inform domestic policy choices from the macro — where to establish testing centres and whether to close borders, to the micro — finding the best medium to make healthcare messages resonate with target audiences. These platforms also shine the spotlight on the largest section of the triad, data in diplomacy.

Stay tuned to find out more.



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