Computers are leaner, meaner and cheaper than ever before. With computing power no longer at a premium, we’re swimming in numbers that describe everything from how a small town in Minnesota behaves during rush hour to the probability of a successful drone strike in Yemen.
The advent of so-called “big data” means that companies, governments and organizations can collect, interpret and wield huge stores of data to an amazing breadth of ends. From shoe shopping to privacy concerns, here’s a look at five ways “big data” is changing the world:
1. Data as a deadly weapon: The traditional battlefield has dissolved into thin air. In the big data era, information is the deadliest weapon and leveraging massive amounts of it is this era’s arms race. But current military tech is buckling under the sheer weight of data collected from satellites, unmanned aircraft, and more traditional means.
As part of the Obama administration’s “Big Data Initiative,” the Department of Defense launched XDATA, a program that intends to invest $25 million toward systems that analyze massive data sets in record time. With more efficient number crunching, the U.S. military can funnel petabytes of data toward cutting edge advances, like making unmanned drones smarter and more deadly than ever.
2. Saving the Earth: Beyond powering predator drones and increasing retail revenue, big data can do a literal world of good. Take Google Earth Engine, an open source big data platform that allowed researchers to map the first high-resolution map of Mexico’s forests. The map would have taken a traditional computer over three years to construct, but using Google Earth Engine’s massive data cloud it was completed in the course of a day.
Massive sets of data like this can help us understand environmental threats on a systemic level. The more data we have about the changing face of the earth’s ecosystems and weather patterns, the better we can model future environmental shifts — and how to stop them while we still can.