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Skills Higher Ed Needs to Ramp Up For: BIG DATA and its Big Impact



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Big Data is Touching our Lives More Than Most Realize, and Every Industry will be Looking for Big Data Analysis Skills

This week we've been exploring the book THE INDUSTRIES OF THE FUTURE, published earlier this year by Alec Ross. On Monday we introduced the book and yesterday we explored Robotics. Today we look at Big Data.

“Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age. Data is the raw material of the information age.”

Here are a few facts from this section of the book that help to clarify the explosion of data that is happening before our eyes:

  • “As recently as 2000, only 25 percent of data was stored in digital format. Less than a decade later, in 2007, that percentage had skyrocketed to 94 percent. And it has continued to rise.”
  • “Every year, the amount of digital data grows by 50 percent.”
  • “Every minute of the day, 204 million emails are sent, 2.4 million pieces of content are posted on Facebook, 72 hours of video are posted on YouTube, and 216,000 new photos are posted on Instagram.”

Big data is a phrase used to describe how these large amounts of data are used to examine, analyze, and forecast trends, preferably in real time. Doing so requires large amounts of computing power (particularly when it comes to the objective of achieving and applying real time or near-real-time results), tools, and specific skill sets.

Many of us have already experienced big data as we scroll through Amazon.com, and witness the real-time recommendations made as we peruse and shop. Amazon is a pioneer in many technologies, and big data is one they have used with impressive effectiveness.

Another example of the power of big data was the Obama Presidential campaign. The winning campaign, “used big data to gain insights into how to raise money, where to campaign, and how to advertise, which none of its opponents could rival. From fund-raising to field operations to analytics in its polling operations, a group of several hundred digital operatives and data scientists crushed their Republican opponents.” One example cited explains how over 10,000 email messages were tested and optimized to achieve maximum effectiveness at fund raising and other vital campaign objectives. The bottom line: big data played a big role in the success of the campaign.

The Types of Challenges Big Data is Helping Us Address

The many ways in which big data can and will be leveraged in the coming years are pretty fascinating (and until I read this book, I had only a fractional appreciation for that). Here are a few of the examples cited in the book.

Accurate, Multi-Language, Real Time Translation: If you've ever leveraged Google Translate, you've experienced the benefits of big data. While the results of automated translations often fall short in terms of accuracy today, they are improving every day. It's pretty darned incredible that you can point your smart phone camera at a sign written in Italian and get a reasonably accurate translation to English immediately. Imagine when you have an earpiece that can translate a room full of people speaking different languages and dialects into your language, as they speak!

“In ten years, a small earpiece will whisper what is being said to you in your native language near simultaneously to the foreign language being spoken. The lag time will be the speed of sound. Undetectable. Because of advances in bioacoustic engineering measuring the frequency, wavelength, sound intensity, and other properties of the voice, the … earpiece in your ear will re-create the voice of the speaker, but speaking your native language.”

Precision Agriculture – Optimizing the use of Every Square Inch of Farm Land: Big data processing can help to deliver “precision agriculture”. By gathering real time factors like weather, water and nitrogen levels, air quality data, and disease prevalence, specific to each square inch of farmland, algorithms can determine precise instructions to optimize the productivity of the land. Early predecessors of these types of systems, like Monsanto's FieldScripts (a system that leverages iPads, cloud based software, and a variable-rate planter), are already in place.

Other big data uses are already expanding rapidly, and many more are to come. Examples abound in the financial industry, where two thirds of the billions of shares traded every day in US equity markets are traded by pre-programmed computer algorithms, and the military, where companies like Palantir are providing multidimensional maps that take in information about timing, severity of attacks, and targeting, to help commanders understand and access risks.

The potential applications of big data are only just beginning to be explored. Companies of all types and sizes will want to be able to leverage these capabilities to gain competitive advantage, and to innovate new products and services. Moving forward, “The choices we make about how we manage data will be as important as the decisions about managing land during the agricultural age and managing industry during the industrial age.”

Implications for Education

Skills Training
Clearly, there will be a growing need for college graduates with the skills necessary to play a role in the world of big data. A wide range of skills go into the many elements that make up big data analysis – we need computers, connections, software, and trained workers to maintain all of these and to envision and create new tools to analyze the data. Experts that combine cross-discipline knowledge will be in demand. Just as today the best systems analysts have an understanding of the business and field they work in, the best big data workers will combine expertise in specific fields like agriculture, health care, finance, and many others, with technical know-how.

Students' Big Data Profiles and the Implications for Acceptance and Employment
Most adults are well aware of the fact that social media postings and the growing volumes of other data about who we are, how we think, our likes and dislikes, our work, finance, and skills background, etc., can and will be used by people looking to draw conclusions about us, often before they've even met or spoken with us.

All of that accumulating data means that our digital footprint is bigger and “louder” than ever. The potential for abuse of that data or exposure of that data, even out of context, grows as well. “Whether you are in Saudi Arabia or in the Unites States, kids are coming online at a younger age and … they are saying and doing things online that far outpace their physical maturity”, explains Jared Cohen, a former State Department official who now runs the Google Ideas think tank. We need to help kids understand the implications of this, starting at an early age.

“The way our education system deals with socializing kids has to change”, says Cohen. “When I was in school, I remember health class … [they scared] you from using drugs, and as you got older they scared you from having unprotected sex.” He suggests that we “should also have the equivalent of health class for helping people understand the risks associated with data permanence so they can make smart decisions …”.

Marketing, Student Success, and Beyond
Big data is already having a big impact on marketing, and this will only grow. Colleges and universities will take advantage of that (many are already). An even more important area to focus on is retention and student success – the potential to leverage large swaths of data to understand when students needs help and when they will best benefit from intervention is something that schools are also beginning to explore. Similar approaches can be used to improve teaching and learning tools and techniques across education.

Tomorrow we'll wrap up this look at The Industries of The Future with a larger look at the implications for education inherent in the future that this book foresees.


  1. Hi,

    Can you please guide me which University or college or training organization is best to learn everything about Big Data. The program must be good in content, detailed explanation for beginners and be reasonable in cost.




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