All around us, networked objects are spewing out information at an unprecedented rate.
According to IBM, 90 per cent of the data in the world has been created in the last two years. Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes.
All of the records created in the first millennia of civilization, or even in the last 70-odd years of the electronic revolution – the mainframes of the sixties, the personal computers of the eighties, the defence networks of the nineties – pale in comparison to the amount of data that's been churned out during the career of Justin Bieber.
Big data is a going concern for big business, which sit on vast stores of it. Enterprise-focused companies like IBM are scrambling to help large clients take advantage of the data they're generating.
But does big data hold real promise for small business?
"I think it could potentially mean a lot," says Todd Scheidt, a Toronto-based associate principal at McKinsey.
To get a sense of big data's potential, consider where it comes from.
A fraction of this data can be chalked up to the rise of social networking; there are more humans than ever before communicating constantly, and many of them are fond of taking digital pictures.
But the real culprit is objects, the rise of electronic appliances, large and small, that, rather than keeping to themselves, share their status over networks, spewing trails of data all the while.
Networked things are all around us. It's not just smartphones that leave behind piles of traffic data, tracking data and location data. Think about surveillance cameras, recording unblinkingly day and night. Control systems monitor the minute-by-minute efficiency of industrial equipment everywhere, from factories to wind farms.
Cars have become networks on four wheels, combining control computers with entertainment computers, monitored by GPS tracking systems. Electronic locks keep records of who has passed through doors everywhere, from military bases to hotels. In operating rooms, surgeries are recorded by digital video cameras. Call centres may record your call for quality and training purposes.
Big data is growing at an exponential rate. In fact, according to a report from the McKinsey consultancy, we now create more data than we can physically store. And now it's all going online.
This presents a market opportunity. There are valuable insights buried in that data. That vast well of numbers can be mined for information about behaviour, demand, and efficiency, or about the physical world around us – like which stores are located where, and what retailers have in stock.
Mr. Scheidt sees a few ways that big data is going to intersect with the small business world. Big business might produce the data, but clever groups of individuals are going to be the ones who figure out how to mine it, turning bulk data into refined information.
"I don't have to be a big company. I could be 10 people, five people, and become a niche supplier of data and insights," says Mr. Scheidt, citing the (slightly larger) example of ClickFox , a company that brings together data from every single instance that a customer interacts with a company, to present a comprehensive analytics picture of their customer-service performance.
Secondly, small businesses can thrive as aggregators of multiple big data feeds.
Vicks – of the vapour rubs and in-ear thermometers – ran an innovative mobile marketing campaign for its thermometers. The campaign combined information from three sources: location-tracking data from Web searches; demographic information about gender and parental status collected from various websites; and flu activity in the users' area from an information feed supplied by Google.
Vicks may be a large corporation, but the clever remixing of data from various sources that it did to provide new value is well within reach of canny, smaller operators.
Inevitably, small businesses will profit from big data applications as consumers – even if those applications are only starting to take shape.
A new universe of possibilities is opening up for small business as processors, aggregators and users of big data – possibilities we'll be exploring in this series in the weeks to come.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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