The human face of big data

Finding a taxi in a rainstorm; keeping track of ocean currents and animal migration; and predicting a divorce two years in advance – these are just a few examples of what Gabriel Leung (pictured), general manager of IT firm EMC Hong Kong and Macau, knows big data can do.

And he knows for a fact it works. In an EMC-sponsored global crowd-sourced project called “The Human Face of Big Data”, a series of initiatives were launched to collect, analyse and visualise data in real time.

In 2011, a senior research engineer in Singapore compared weather satellite data with 830 million GPS records of 80 million taxi trips and found many taxi drivers pulled over when it rained.

He later learnt Singapore’s largest taxi company would withhold $1,000 from a driver’s salary if an accident happened, so many of them simply waited out the storm. The company is now trying to fix this flawed policy.

Scientists in Australia formed a marine observation system to monitor the country’s enormous ocean. A massive database is being built with continuous data integration from sensor floats, animal tags, underwater vehicles and monitoring stations.

Credit card companies in the US created a complex algorithm – such as how often a married person stays in a hotel in the same city where he or she lives, and how often flowers are sent to an address other than home – to predict the health of their cardholders’ marriage. Why would the company care? Data shows couples going through a divorce are at greater risk to default on their monthly payments.

Big data, Leung says, is transforming the world in more ways than most imagine, including protecting the environment; bringing a society more closely together; reducing corruption; eradicating cancer; and controlling crime.

The way businesses operate is also changing immensely as more and more real-time data becomes available.

“We’ve been talking about technology and business integration for the past five years, but many companies are still stuck with traditional methods, particularly among marketers.”

In September, a mobile app was launched allowing users to share and compare their lives by answering questions about their dreams, interests and views on family, sleep, trust, sex and luck. They can also map their daily path, share the objects and rituals that bring them luck, get a glimpse into the one special thing that others want to experience and discover hidden secrets about the world.

Three million people downloaded the app and completed the survey within three weeks.

“It’s in people’s nature to share,” he says. “But not only do they share, they like to compare themselves with others. That says a lot for businesses that want to understand consumers and have a specific target audience group.”

From Google and iTunes to, more locally, HKID cards and Octopus cards, they are all examples of big data and how it is changing the world, Leung says. “In the future, information is king.”

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