By Amy Saulino
20th October 2015

As an Information and Data Management professional you've probably been asked what you do for work and found yourself trying to describe Big Data. Even those of us in the industry struggle sometimes to adequately define the breadth and scope of what Big Data is, and what it can do.

Or maybe you've been considering your next career move, and what the options are for using your skills and experience in Big Data? It can be a challenge to see the forest for the trees when we get bogged down in one project or job role, and lose sight of the bigger picture and what other opportunities might exist. With these thoughts in mind, here are what we consider to be some of the most exciting and innovative real world applications for Big Data today.

Disaster relief

Big Data & Disaster Relief

Simply put, Big Data is the gathering of tremendous amounts of data from multiple sources, and analysing it for insights and solutions. In the case of disaster management, it can make sense of chaos in ways that can literally save lives. Crowdsourced, grassroots efforts have arisen in response to earthquakes, typhoons and earthquakes, helping victims and relief workers in equal measure. And increasingly, officials at humanitarian organisations and government agencies are formalising efforts to fund and maintain networks of maps, satellite images, communications and infrastructure data, and other information that will bolster the speed and efficiency of their efforts. Whether prevention or planning, relief or recovery – Big Data can play a crucial role in improving the way we respond to disaster.

Public health and research

Big Data & Public Health and Research

Another sector where Big Data is improving lives is public health. Through the collection and analysis of large datasets, Big Data specialists are making astonishing strides in genetic and medical research, and creating improved outcomes for the treatment and prevention of disease – not to mention increasing value for the healthcare system through coordinated care initiatives. To give an example, the top public healthcare system in Germany implemented a proprietary analytics tool that mines and predicts outcomes for data that is growing exponentially. By targeting their research, they were able to identify patients with a 90% chance of hospitalization within the year with a congestive heart failure diagnosis. On an even larger scale, Big Data can similarly be used to monitor and predict epidemics, and hopefully prevent them.

Weather forecasting and climate change

Big Data & Climate Change

Thanks to the growth in both the numbers of sensors and satellites in operation, and in the speed at which the input can be processed, Big Data plays an important role in predicting weather patterns and in particular, cataclysmic events. Data improves the ability to accurately predict the timing and intensity of storms, potentially saving human lives and minimising destruction of property and infrastructure. Taking the longer view, data also increases the understanding of the impact of climate change, both from a meteorological and economic perspective, and is pivotal in the work being done in natural resource management, food and agriculture, ecology and material sciences – the list goes on. Recognising this, last year the U.N.’s Global Pulse program (for the use of data in development and humanitarian efforts) launched its Big Data Climate Challenge; you can read about the winning projects here.

Financial services

Big Data & Finance

Weather isn’t the only thing that calls for an accurate forecast. Financial institutions are increasingly harnessing the power of Big Data for sophisticated financial modelling, determining demand and costs, and cushioning the impact of financial and currency upheavals. Private corporations, such as banks and brokerages, as well as governing agencies and non-profits, are working to predict the occurrences and effects of global financial events on both a micro and macro scale. By creating detailed, scenario-based forecasts, organisations can identify key weaknesses for global economies and financial markets under various conditions and develop courses of action. Like retailers before them, financial institutions are also more reliant on data to obtain a 360-degree view of their customers, to better target products and services and create a competitive advantage.

Sport and entertainment

Big Data & Sport

Fortunately, not every application of data has life-or-death implications (although arguably that could depend on how ardently you support your team). The world of sport relies on the analysts in its lineup just as much as its top goal-scorers. From daily decisions such as choosing the starting players, to bigger issues such as developing long-term prospects and creating marketing franchises, Big Data is a star performer. (For a more in-depth look, our own Mark Dexter discusses the ‘Moneyball effect’ and the role of data in sport in this article.) Data also drives our favourite entertainment options, such as Apple Music or Netflix, which use vast amounts of data to optimise streaming performance and personalise recommendations for users.

What would you add to the list? Where else is Big Data making a big impact? We’d love to hear your insights – please share your comments below.

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