The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live
'Big Data' impacts how we work, elect our presidents, and play tennis. It also affects the way we're watched.
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Cukier and Mayer-Schönberger cite the United Parcel Service to bolster their argument about correlation. UPS equips its trucks with sensors that identify vibrations and other things associated with breakdowns. "The data do not tell UPS why the part is in trouble. They reveal enough for the company to know what to do."Skip to next paragraph
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Lund's boss, GE chief executive officer Jeff Immelt, also talks about sensor data. The company is now investing $1 billion in software and analytics, which includes putting sensors on its jet engines to help enhance fuel efficiency. Mr. Immelt has said that just a 1 percent change in "fuel burn" can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to an airline.
"You save an oil guy 1 percent," Immelt said at a conference this spring, "you're his friend for life."
While Lund has talked glowingly about how much data his projects can collect, he wants to make sure I know data isn't everything. "As a scientist," he says, "I know the biggest challenge is finding the right questions. How do you find the questions important to business, society, and culture?"
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Rothman has questions, too. "We work in emergency rooms," he says about himself and Dr. Dugas. "We're the boots on the ground."
Rothman's work has involved emergency medicine and the nexus between public health and epidemics, including influenza, which kills as many as 500,000 people a year around the world and about 45,000 in the US.
The two researchers wanted to find out if the Google national study held lessons for Baltimore and their emergency room (ER). They studied Google queries for the Baltimore area – queries about flu symptoms, or chest congestion, or where to buy a thermometer. If they could spot spikes, that might help solve one crucial problem.
"Crowding," Dugas says. "Huge issue."
When epidemics start, people rush to hospitals. Waiting rooms fill up.
If Google trends showed a spike just as epidemics started, ERs could staff up and reserve more space for the surge of patients. The link between Google spikes and hospital visits in Baltimore turned out to be strong, especially for children. As soon as the first news reports surfaced about the 2009 H1N1 virus, pediatric ER visits at Hopkins increased – at the peak by as much as 75 percent.
But when the two researchers looked closer, they found something unexpected. No flu. It turned out that news reports about H1N1 elsewhere fueled a rush to ERs in Baltimore – what one researcher called "fear week."
"If you just looked at correlation for flu, you'd say it was a false trend," says Dugas.
Even so, she and Rothman found the data important for ERs: No matter why people are coming in the door, they need to staff up. The Baltimore study also showed the importance of finding out what was behind all those medically related Google searches – in other words, not just correlation but cause.
Like GE's Lund, Rothman emphasizes the value of "the questions you're asking."
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Evidence that Big Data promises enormous benefits is more than anecdotal. MIT's Mr. Brynjolfsson did a study in 2012 examining 179 companies. He found those whose decisions were "data-driven" had become 5 to 6 percent more productive in ways only the use of data could explain.
On the other hand, consider just this one data point: If you type "Big Data Dark Side" into Google, you'll get 40 million results. Despite the potential, there's also peril.