How Small Businesses Are Innovating With ‘Big Data’

By Features Business on Main

Entrepreneur Frank Moss explains how the ‘Big Data’ revolution could help predict the future, spot early signs of disease and even revive the U.S. economy.

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Six months ago I stepped down as director of the MIT Media Lab, one of the coolest jobs around, to return to the world of startups. Why? There’s never been a more exciting time to be an entrepreneur.

My career has spanned two waves of digital technology: first, the rise of personal computers, and second, the development of global networks. I watched them transform our lives and society. In a matter of decades, entire industries were disrupted and new ones created. It’s been quite a ride.

But while at the Media Lab, I witnessed an even more significant third wave of innovation emerging, now commonly called “Big Data.”

What is Big Data?
Big Data is the explosion of structured and unstructured data about people — you, me and everyone. It’s the result of the first two waves of technology combining to cause the continuous digitization and networking of everything. I describe this phenomenon in my recent book:

“Computers, smart phones, GPS devices, embedded microprocessors, sensors —– all connected by the mobile Internet —– are forming a ‘societal nervous system’ that is generating a cloud of data about people that is growing at an exponential rate.

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“Every time we perform a search, tweet, send an email, post a blog, comment on one, use a cell phone, shop online, update our profile on a social networking site, use a credit card, or even go to the gym, we leave behind a mountain of data, a digital footprint, that provides a treasure trove of information about our lifestyles, financial activities, health habits, social interactions, and much more.”

For decades, public and private institutions have been storing data about individuals through employee records, customer transactions and electronic medical records.

But it’s been accelerated by the spectacular success of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn, and video/picture sharing services like YouTube and Flickr. When acting together, these services generate exponential rates of growth of data about people in astonishingly short periods of time.

One might assume that the exploitation of Big Data is the province of big companies. But that’s not the case, thanks to several forces that are democratizing Big Data. These include affordable cloud computing storage, open source software for processing large volumes of data, and Big Data sets being made available in the public domain.

What can Big Data do?
The stage is now set for entrepreneurs and small-business owners to reap tremendous rewards from Big Data by creating new businesses or finding ways to accelerate the growth of existing ones. There are an almost unlimited number of such opportunities, but here are just a few:

Measure human emotions
Once the stuff of sci-fi, it’s now possible to use mobile phones and wireless sensors to collect huge volumes of data about people’s emotions “in the wild” — where they live, work and play. These data sets reveal important patterns that can revolutionize how consumer products are conceived, designed and marketed.

Affectiva Inc. is marketing an innovative system, based on years of research in “affective computing” by professor Rosalind Picard at the Media Lab, using webcams to read people’s emotional states and levels of attention from their facial expressions. It gives marketers faster, more accurate insight into consumer response to their products and services. This enables small companies to gain market intelligence that is comparable to, if not better than, data used by enterprises hundreds of times their size.

Get social media insights
Today, many people watch TV and use social media to simultaneously comment about the programs they’re viewing — even the advertisements. TV programmers, brand marketers and ad agencies would give anything to measure this Big Data in real time to get up-to-the-minute insights into audience sentiment about programming and products.

Bluefin Labs Inc. has accomplished this using machine-learning breakthroughs developed at the Media Lab by professor Deb Roy. Bluefin is creating a Big Data set called the “TV Genome,” which is a real-time mapping of vast amounts of social media commentary back to its “stimulus” on TV. Every month, Bluefin fingerprints and analyzes all domestic U.S. TV broadcasts, which amount to more than 2 million minutes!  

Track and improve consumer health
In the decade ahead, consumer-centric health will radically transform health care, moving it out of hospitals and doctors’ offices and into our everyday lives. This will be made possible by the exploding volume of Big Data about our lives and our bodies, enabling ordinary people to take control of their health and wellness.

An early mover in this market is Ginger.io Inc., which uses cell phones to collect data about people’s daily behavior and then visualizes it to reveal important health patterns, like the early signs of illness. For example, when people are getting sick, they often sleep more, use their phones less and change eating habits. Ginger.io co-founder professor Sandy Pentland of the Media Lab calls these “honest signals” — and they could  dramatically reduce serious illness and the skyrocketing cost of health care.

Finally, here’s a Big Data startup that’s not out of the Media Lab, but I predict it will be a huge success. Recorded Future Inc. scours the Web for events and information about certain topics (like stock markets, competitive intelligence and national security), automatically organizes, analyzes and visualizes this data, and literally predicts the future.

Here’s my prediction: These startups are only the beginning. Big Data will be far more disruptive to business and society than the previous two waves of technology. The big winners will be “Big Data small businesses,” and they’ll become the powerful engine of growth that revives the U.S. economy.

What do you think?

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