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The Rise of Big Data

Foreign Affairs (06/13) Kenneth Neil Cukier; Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger

Big data is transforming the way people experience the world and enabling them to learn things that in the past would have been impossible, offering a potential that could rival that of the Internet. This phenomenon is relatively new because as recently as 2000 only a quarter of stored information was digital, compared with today’s figure of more than 98 percent. Big data does not merely refer to a quantity of information, but also the ability to turn previously unquantified information into data. This “datafication” of the world, combined with cost-effective computer memory, powerful processors, smart algorithms, and improved software, is driving efforts to provide enough data to a computer to enable it to infer the probability of an event, which is taking the place of trying to teach a computer to complete a task. Making use of big data requires three major shifts in approach to data. First, using big data requires the collection and use of a large amount of data rather than small amounts or samples. Second, imperfect data is acceptable because a huge volume of data of variable quality produces greater results than a small quantity of clean, exact data. Finally, the focus with big data should be in finding correlations rather than causes.

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