Big Data: The World’s Nervous System

This article referenced below addresses many of the overarching concerns that big data has placed on society today, such as issues of data scope, data integrity, and user data privacy concerns.  Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer had a particularly interesting outlook on the overwhelming influx of data becoming integrated into society as she described the phenomenon as “watching the planet develop a nervous system.”  Big data is in fact just like the nervous system.  It connects us, drives our actions, can change our motivations and our futures.

Knowing that big data has the power to transform the society that we live in and the actions we take to inhabit it, it’s crucial that we understand the growth at which data is entering humans’ everyday lives.  Daniela Hernandez comments on the development of our nervous system of surrounding data and where it’s coming from as she states that factors of data growth can be attributed to things like social media, gadgets measuring appliance electricity usage, consumer genomics, and personal fitness trackers such as the Nike fuel band which measures fitness activity.  In addition to the elements contributing to big data and how that contributes to the development of an information nervous system, I think mobile applications should be added into this field of play, as I have heard of many fitness apps that are geared towards maintaining data to help weight loss and stabilize exercise routines.

The motivation behind these fitness-measuring gadgets is essentially to allow people to personally connect with their own data.  Having the ability to record everyday actions gives individuals the autonomy to discover their own trends with their own data.  Big data today has faced challenges of developing something meaningful out of the loads of measures we are now able to track or record.  The great thing about the common gadgets we use that were mentioned above is that people are using these devices to track their own health and the health of their driver, and carpets that monitor a person’s balance and gait.  The personalization features in these applications make the data very meaningful in it of itself.  Joel Dudley, director of biomedical informatics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, summarizes how these kinds of personal tracking devices tackle the challenges we face regarding data scope and how to fine-tune data in order to make it manageable and workable as he highlights, “the big challenge [of] expanding the scope of big data in healthcare is to encompass an individual’s environment outside the walls of the clinic or hospital.” These personal devices are allowing for this exact process to happen.

Not only do personal fitness devices allow for issues of data meaningfulness and scope to be tackled, but they also give ordinary people the opportunity to craft scientific and health-related questions, and not just provide answers.  Additionally, such devices are so obtainable and relatively cheap to purchase and easy to use so it provides an interest personal analysis capabilities to the masses instead of just an elite few.  Having access to such data gives people the power to connect with themselves and their patterns of life to show them how measuring personal data can change an individual’s life.

However, all of these new data-oriented opportunities that spawn from new technologies present other challenges such as developing actual methods on how that data is be analyzed and interpreted.  More specifically, the market is open for designing new mobile statistical analysis tools.  Fernandez comments, “without the proper analysis even good data loses its zing.”  This is where the federal government needs to come in and fund projects that will help people perform “personal analytics” on their own data to improve themselves, connect with others, and make meaning of the data we are now capable of measuring and recording.  The federal government has responding to this concern regarding big data and has acknowledged this predicament by setting aside more than $200 million to fund big data initiatives.  The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded about $15 million to fund eight big data research projects. NIH Director, Francis Collins, predicts that such government funding will “ultimately help accelerate research to improve health — by developing methods for extracting important, biomedically relevant information from large amounts of complex data.”

The only remaining concern of big data and using devices to capture health-related personal data is privacy.  As tracking becomes even more mainstream, the issue of privacy is bound to pop up regarding issues of who has power to access such data and who owns it, etc.  But once we settle out the privacy concerns, we are on our way to making people feel empowered by their health-related actions.  The autonomy such devices provide will likely increase wellness everywhere assuming that the technology is available.


About cbaughma

Senior at University of Michigan studying Informatics: Data Mining & Information Analysis
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2 Responses to Big Data: The World’s Nervous System

  1. maddiegogo says:

    Comparing big data to a nervous system is a great visual and also a great way to explain the term. Most people when they hear things such as informatics, big data, etc. just give me a blank stare so this is good one to remember. What I love about it is that the comparison could explain what big data is, but more importantly it explains why big data is important: “It connects us, drives our actions, can change our motivations and our futures.”

    Can anyone think of other comparisons? Big data is the brain? Big data is all the clues in a complicated puzzle? Just brainstorming here…

  2. clairejwiggins says:

    In response to your comment, I don’t think that comparing big data to a nervous system is quite accurate actually. I think that big data could be better compared to the brain. In the nervous system, the brain sends signals to the peripheral nervous system (like move your hand), and the peripheral nervous system sends signals back to the brain (my hand feels cold). Although this fashion of communication works just fine for the human body, I don’t feel like it is complex enough to describe big data. For example, a nerve in your pointer finger can’t communicate directly with a nerve in your pinky; the message has to go through the central nervous system first. Communication between nodes in data is more fluid and less centralized. Inside the brain, however, the flow of communication is far less structured, resembling a typical network more in my opinion.
    Aside from the inacurate metaphor, however, I agree with what the article is describing. Even though big data is huge, it also has the potential to be highly personal and helpful.

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