6 Surprising Uses for Big Data That You Might Not Already Know

According to IBM, we produce 2.5 exabytes (2.5 quintillion bytes) of data every day from phones, computers, televisions, credit cards, social media, sensors, and more. We hear about Big Data in business and normally only from large companies that can afford expensive data scientists. But in this post, I’m going to look at some surprising ways Big Data is being harnessed to make the world a better place.

1. Discover How Babies Learn to Speak

In 2011, Deb Roy, an Associate Professor at MIT, brought a TED audience to their feet by showing them the exact time his son walked for the first time.


In 2005, Roy had wired his house with 11 video cameras & 14 microphones right before his son was born. As part of his Human Speech Genome Project to capture how children learn to speak, Roy collected about 200 Gigabytes of data per day. He then sifted through that data with his team at MIT’s Media Lab to pinpoint the first utterances of words. They discovered that routine everyday interaction is just as important as formal training when when it comes to developing the ability to speak.

2. Saving Forests

124 square miles of forests are destroyed each day by loggers, miners, ranchers, and farmers.  That’s roughly 58,000 football fields per day. This is undoubtably very dangerous for the planet. How were we watching the planet before we had the ability to collect data on a massive scale? Surveyors with measuring tapes. That’s right. That’s how we used to collect data.

Enter Greg Asner from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory.Edited_COAPlane

The Carnegie Airborne Observatory is made up of a Dornier 228 aircraft with enough tools and sensors to accurately identify the shape of the forest and even the species of plants at a rate of 10 hectares per second. Using his lab in the sky, Asner and his team collect up to 2000 Gigabytes of data per day to monitor the health of the forest. Armed with so much data they’re the best watchdogs a forest can have.

3. Spotting Shots

ShotSpotter uses acoustic sensors to triangulate the source of gunshot sounds in a neighborhood. In conjunction with these sensors and rapid analysis of the data, ShotStoppers’s staff can accurately predict almost 100 percent of the time the precise location of a shot.


Instant results mean police officers can respond to gun shots faster and have reliable information of incidents involving gun fire. With accurate information, not only are they able to respond quickly but use that data to find trends in crime per neighborhood.

4. Big Data to Squish Insects

It’s almost poetic how Big Data is helping us get rid of our smallest nemesis—mosquitoes. They kill millions each year and stunt economic growth in developing countries. It only seems fitting that someone points Big Data at mosquitoes to eradicate them once and for all.


aWhere Inc. is testing a satellite-based surveillance system that locates and analyzes potential mosquito breeding sites. Using additional data from humidity reports, rainfall and wind measurements aWhere analyzes the light signature of water to identify areas where mosquitoes are with a 0.6-meter level of accuracy. That’s a satellite 22,000 miles off the earth’s surface locating something within a 2 foot diameter! Using this information we no longer have to use the spray and pray methods that carpet non-infested areas with pesticides; we can hit them exactly where it hurts.

5. Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart

What does that even mean? That’s actually what CAPTCHA stands for – the thing where you have to type out scribbled words before you log on somewhere or buy something online. It’s essentially designed to block attacks by bots.

Big Data Captcha
Fortunately, the creator of CAPTCHA also puts all the time we waste on deciphering those lines to real use. She uses our attempts to help translate and transcribe millions of old books. That’s why you’re forced to decipher two words—one intentionally unclear word to stop bots and the other one to help decipher old books.

6. End of the Mad Men Era


I am a big fan of Mad Men and Draperesque fashion, but I’m glad that the Mad Men era of marketing is coming to an end. Here’s why:

Before Mad Men and the era of hyper-commerce you’d go to a local grocer, tailor, cobbler or other shops to get what you wanted. The clerk would know your name, your preferences, even what you ordered last time; and using that information, would be able to recommend you what s/he thought you might want.  Sure, Draper’s Kodak ad is quite poignant but he would have had no idea whether you already had a machine or not.

Big data on the other hand is helping current marketers figure out what their customers already have and what they might want. Instead of sending you hundreds of beautiful ads they can send select ads with relevant products and deals that actually matter. This means more strategic, intentional, and meaningful marketing that delights customers.

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