Is Big Data a Good Thing?

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Big Data is a crazy reality that we have created with society’s many digital input devices, from street cameras to the common smartphone (sorry, Trekkies). There is so much data available that computing algorithms are needed to extrapolate and contextualize the information. Companies are actively looking at ways to mine and extrapolate Big Data for analytics and market use.

McKinsey & Company’s Business Technology Office says Big Data will become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus. The report goes on to list five ways Big Data can be used by companies and nonprofits:

1) Big Data can unlock significant value by making information transparent and usable at much higher frequency.

2) Organizations create and store more transactional data in digital form, they can collect more accurate and detailed performance information on everything from product inventories to sick days, and therefore expose variability and boost performance.

3) Big Data allows ever-narrower segmentation of customers and therefore much more precisely tailored products or services.

4) Sophisticated analytics can substantially improve decision making.

5) Big Data can be used to improve the development of the next generation of products and services.

Given the incredible amounts of data available about people, will companies abuse the data to take advantage of people and society in general? This is a tough issue because generally, Big Data will improve our ability to serve each other with better, more qualitative information, product and service offerings. Semantic information is already making search infinitely better.

However, there will be repercussions including further polarization and perhaps an unhappy realization of the picture that Big Data shows of ourselves as a society. Society may not be ready to see itself in the mirror.

Further, the continuing trials of Facebook illustrate just how serious of an issue Big Data has become. Facebook’s consistent use of user data to benefit its corporate customers in the face of privacy has triggered investigation requests to the FTC, and continues to get exposed by the media. Yet Facebook continues its practices in the face of media protests and potential lawsuits or worse.

For every Facebook that data issues become well known (and the company suspect), there are dozens who get away with Big Data abuses, oft under the radar. Really, in every technology, in every sector, there are abuses. Big Data is and will always be no different.

Will we accept Big Data’s negatives as a trade off for better results. Or do we even have a choice? What do you think?


  • I’m not certain why people are so concerned about this, because corporate/marketing use of “big data” has been around since the 1950s and the rise of American Express credit card segmentation. For proof, check your mail. While there is a wall between your financial data and your consumer purchase data, every time you swipe your credit card at Pottery Barn that information is uploaded to Experian and repackaged into mailing lists giving you an L.L. Bean Home catalog in a month. PRIZM plots you into one of 66 wealth/lifestyle segments. If you are a customer of a corporation, they likely plot your lifetime value for profitability forecasting, segment your needs, and send you customized offers via email. Airlines and hotels have used big data for years to partition off their most profitable (stupid) business travelers from the rest of humanity.

    I bet if you and I walk into a Westin Hotel or American Airlines terminal, we will both be treated very differently … based on our data profiles.The irony of all of this is consumers like the personalization provided by data monitoring. If you get a catalog offering just the leather jackets from Australia that would make you look cool on your Ducati motorcycle, you feel engaged, excited, and likely don’t think much about the subtle observation and information transfers that made that offer appear. We all want to see the products we want to respond to.Consumers have grown comfortable with direct marketers doing this via mail for nearly 60 years. I really wonder why they are so upset that digital marketers are now doing the same thing.

    • Generally, I agree with you. I think semantic information has made for a better social web.  We’ll see what happens. But I also think we’ll be hearing about the horror stories for some time.

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  • Great post, thank you.

  • I think Data overload is actually detrimental to business and often makes business move slower if used in the wrong way. It is flawed to use data outside your operations to drive things. Seeing a hot product in your sales stream allowing you to increase inventory is a great use of it. But often taking raw data and looking for cause and effect without actually asking people why will miss more than hit.

    As for Facebook I left it last week. They have an 2 issues. The other abusers are not sharing your activities with your friends or boss. Facebook is. Secondly they have so much personal data and yet they get only half the click rate on ads that traditional digital does (which is also a big failure). This illustrates my second point. People do not care about interacting with brands on facebook. No one goes to brand pages. We log in to chat and keep up with friends. Brands are at the bottom of the list. Facebook never asked people ‘Are you wanting this’. Then they also didn’t ask ‘Would you pay for a killer comm platform if we blocked brands from your experience? or will you please click on ads? or do you want ads?

    Great examples of big failure by them and that is why they are doomed.

    • Wow, it will be interesting to see if you are right. I know that the recent changes triggered new growth at Google+ to the tune of 2 million per day.  At some point Facebook will lose power, it is inevitable really given its business ethics that the government is going to come down on them just as a PR move.

  • We are sharing a Trekkie brain, Geoff. I recently wrote a post (very different topic) centered on Data. I hope Brent Spiner is okay. That’s just weird :)

    Data mining is extremely scary There is a situation going on right now with a charity fundraiser that is clearly just an effort to get key data on prospects and customers. The fact that those efforts are being hidden behind a charity curtain is really disturbing. I have a feeling these incidents will only increase over the next few months and years. Scary =/

  • Big data is here to stay and there are lots of greater good examples out there but… the thing we must all grapple with is not what our data is collected for (say advertising) but what it is used for beyond that. As a marketer all my professional life, I see marketings use of data as pretty benign. What concerns me is this: unknown third parties buying and using data sets for unknown purposes. Jeff Jonas said it best: “Once your data is out there, it’s hard to control.” Big data has ushered in a new era–it has also put our expectations of privacy on notice. Is the trade off worth it? Some days I say yes and others I say no.

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