Big Data and Small Business – Part 1

Big Data sounds like a mighty big buzzword for those who don’t understand what the buzzword means. Simply put, big data is all about our rapidly growing abilities to record, store, and compare increasingly vast amounts of information. Though the concept of big data is over fifty years old, the reality of being able to track and analyse the habits of individuals amongst extremely large groups of people with hyper-accuracy is closer to fifteen. For the last decade and a half we have been able to peer into each other’s lives in ways that have the power to significantly improve the tenor of human experience but have fundamentally changed our ideas and ideals around personal privacy. Globally popular tools such as Google and Facebook have spent a decade or more recording human wants and desires from all parts of the Earth. Each of us carry loyalty cards, GPS devices, personal computers, virtual wallets, and transit passes, often all on the same device, our mobile phones. Most importantly, our computing ability and distributed computer networks allow us to share that data among the academic, business, and social institutions which will analyse and learn from it.

We’re doing this on a global scale but each data point is a transaction in time and energy between two or more people. Big data is generated by small business and thus there are a lot of lessons for small businesses to learn from their own streams of big data. Here are several examples of how “big data” is accumulated and used. Perhaps you’ll notice yourself in these paragraph long stories.

Earlier this week Google announced it was going to discontinue scanning the contents of Gmail accounts in order to figure out what kind of advertisements to show the owners of those accounts. Since its inception, Gmail users have traded personal privacy for the convenience of owning one of the most easily remembered email account suffixes. Gmail users would write their most private messages and send them through a system that they knew would electronically scan and analyse each email in order to efficiently tailor the types and tones of ads to the personality and interests of each and every Gmail user. In April 2016, Google estimated there were over 1billion users of its popular Gmail service. That’s an awful lot of data to scour through on a daily basis but Google did it for nearly a decade. Next time you’re logged into your Gmail account, check out the ads appearing to the right of the screen in your Gmail and in search results or on websites you visit. They are there because of your search and browser activities. Google does not make and has never made information gleaned from these scans public.

A single parent is amazed at a supermarket checkout when the cashier announces her loyalty card has amassed enough points for a $50 rebate which she happily applies against her purchase. Using her loyalty card on every purchase has led to noticeable savings on the cost of individual items though somehow her average shopping bill is slightly higher week over week. Between the loyalty card, which assigns each shopper an identifiable personal ID, her bank debit card, and her credit card, every item she purchases is recorded in one or more of several dossiers kept on her consumer habits. The record of these purchases is used to create offers specifically for her user profile and to more efficiently order stock for the stores she tends to frequent.

Sometime this year, Facebook will surpass 2billion users, or slightly more than 1 in every 4 living humans. Due to its enormous scale, Facebook users only see a fraction of what is posted within their personal social network. Facebook reads and scans user accounts to determine which of their friends’ posts and shares might be of interest to that user. Accessing and analysing the personal information of over ¼ of the world’s population has left Facebook with the largest repository of indicators about human behaviour in human history. Facebook makes this information open and available to third parties who design apps, quizzes, and games for Facebook and those third parties might sell that information to other parties such as insurance agencies, housing and civic developers, and grocery chains.

Somewhere along Toronto’s Yonge / University subway line a full train carrying 1458 people is stuck between stations waiting for clearance from an earlier slowdown. With about 100 trains running approximately 120 seconds apart, the Toronto subway system moves over 1.5million riders each day but daily delays can cause tens of thousands of productive person hours to be lost and can make hundreds of thousands of people late for work or appointments. For the past six years the TTC has been trying to improve its track and signals systems so it can cut 30-seconds off the time between trains in order to increase capacity, efficiency, and speed.

In a semi-rural part of Johnson County, Kansas, a deliver van carrying the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries for several families pulls up a long driveway. The local Whole Foods receives weekly delivery orders placed by the smart-appliance refrigerators that are becoming more prevalent in communities with super high speed Internet. The delivery itself and the method of ordering are cool but the semi-automated process at the sprawling local Amazon warehouse where robots and their human assistants compile tens of thousands of orders each day is a technical ballet built entirely on big data.

Each of these stories is an example of how “big-data” is used to understand our systems, improve on service delivery or increase better outcomes. Data is everywhere, left like electronic breadcrumbs by citizens and consumers as we move through our days doing the stuff we do. Big data is the empirical story of our lives. Today, the idea of big data is being democratized and made available to everyone. In the next part of this series, we’re going to explore how accessing the streams of data our businesses generate can help a small business improve.