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Big Data: Can it really change our lives?



Just the other week, my son sat at our kitchen table and looked at me skeptically as I recalled that one of the most desired gadgets when I was his age was a simple pocket calculator. Today, he and his friends have such a dizzying array of ‘toys’ designed to amuse, educate and stimulate, that the wonder of a hand-held calculating machine is lost on him.


What I don’t think he realizes is the true potential of the extraordinary technical revolution we are blessed to be living in,

in which lifestyle devices are only some of the first widely recognized results.


The next wave of sophisticated tools, many of which are being perfected by teams of specialists who I am privileged to work with, will truly change our lives – and society as a whole – for the better.


Imagine a society in which potential illnesses are identified before we even get them, or are tracked before they worsen, in which we can control air pollution and reduce energy consumption, or where a healthy meal, thanks to technology, is cooked to perfection before anyone gets home.


Big data makes many of these innovations possible. Where once infrastructures were molded by tools of stone and metal, today we have begun to build an IT world in ‘the cloud’ with a collection of data so enormous and complex that we are only beginning to understand its worth.


Just as oil was to the 20th century, so data will become the essential ingredient for the 21st. But this lucrative resource must also be refined to make it more meaningful and actionable for people.


Companies such as Philips have been developing ways to visualize and explore massive data sets and turn them into something more useful. Now we are at the stage where we can create devices that don’t just provide a service, like a pocket calculator, but have broader potential to improve our lives in more meaningful ways.


For example, the Quantified Self movement, a global community of pioneers, uses self-tracking tools like wearable computers to find meaning in personal data. This information can empower people to manage their health and provide healthcare providers with detailed information, enabling more personalized care.


At this year’s World Economic Forum the enormous potential of big data was reflected in the Technology Pioneers. The Nest thermostat learns from a user’s behavior and creates a tailored schedule that saves energy, while Coursera allows free access to some of the world’s best universities.


Big data also helps companies create stronger connections with customers and find leaner ways of operating. Kaggle, for example, connects scientists to companies with big data problems and GitHub, a leading social network for programmers, is changing how people collaborate on projects.


While the potential of big data is enormous, we must ensure that concerns over data privacy, ownership and accountability are resolved. However, by responsibly making big data meaningful, I truly believe that it can help us to build a promising future for our children.

Jim Andrew

Executive Vice-President, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer

Jim Andrew has worked extensively with leading companies on issues of growth, international expansion, and corporate and business unit strategy. He began his career in 1986 at the Boston Consulting Group, where he served as a Senior Partner and Managing Director.


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