There’s nowhere to hide in the age of big data

Professor Michael Blumenstein, Head of the School of Information and Communication Technology
Professor Michael Blumenstein, Head of the School of Information and Communication Technology

by Professor Michael Blumenstein, Head of Griffith University’s School of Information and Communication Technology

In the world of information technology, big data is the issue on everyone’s lips.

According to IBM, every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. To give that some context, in the US a quintillion is represented by a one followed by 18 zeros. In the UK, it’s a one followed by 30 zeros.

Either way, 2.5 quintillion of anything is a staggering number. In terms of bytes, it means more than 90 per cent of the data in the world today has been created in just the past two years.

Now that’s really staggering,especially when one considers what came before. For example —

  • 200 years ago, it took six months for a letter from Australia to reach family in England;
  • 150 years ago, the original version of “express post” saw men on horseback carry information across America’s Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to California;
  • 50 years ago, air mail revolutionised international postage by cutting delivery times to mere days;
  • and just a few short years ago, a letter or parcel sent by actual Express Post was promised to arrive within 24 hours, as long as delivery fell within a defined network.

As remarkable as these advances were at the time, today they seem quaint. Thanks to the rise of the internet, the entire world is now within our immediate reach as the spread of information via means such as email, social media and mobile technology continues to transform the communication landscape.

Simple term for a complex entity

The latest phenomenon in this information revolution is big data, a deceptively simple term for a complex entity, namely a massive amount of structured and unstructured information so large that it is difficult to process by conventional means.

Think of data comprising billions of pieces of information from millions of people and spanning various activities — Facebook posts, online purchasing, call centre exchanges, mobile phone use, Google searches — just to name a few.

All that information is recorded, every day and from everyone everywhere. If you are on the internet in 2015, you have nowhere to hide.

Big data breaks down into three components — volume, variety and velocity — but it’s another “V” that is raising the stakes in the ultra-competitive modern word: value.

Businesses are the big new players in the personalisation of digital media using information sourced from individual devices. Why? Because the value of big data lies in its provision of almost real-time insight into people’s behaviour, particularly their buying habits and online activities, which can then be applied to creating new and specific marketing strategies.

Known as data mining, companies are collecting your data and putting it to use in the marketing landscape, meaning your full life’s behaviour can now be tracked through different search engines and digitally stored.

Every time you do anything online — use Google as a search, look at a website, buy your groceries — the digital world is collecting your data on everything you do, and noting where you are and your personal preferences.

Gone are the days of focus groups giving companies their opinions on this product or that promotion. Businesses can now capture and act upon thousands to millions of pieces of stored information.

So what protection do we have? I think the message to adopt is one similar to that of the responsible drinking campaigns. I call it responsible social media.

In other words, always remember that whatever you are doing online, it can be tracked — even what you just Googled a few seconds ago.

New era in the job market

However, despite understandable concerns about the access to, and application of, people’s personal information, the rise of big data also brings with it exciting opportunities for the next wave of information technology leaders.

Big data is opening a new era in the job market to those skilled in fields such as artificial intelligence, data science, data analysis and cyber security, all of which are at the heart of a new Bachelor of Computer Science degree being launched by the School of Information and Communication Technology at Griffith University in 2016.

Graduates equipped with majors including data sciences and artificial intelligence will be well placed to ride the wave of these future job prospects.

This is a very exciting space. We are not just future proofing, this degree will actually solve the career needs right now in these areas.

Meanwhile, perhaps some of those future leaders will declare themselves when GovHack Gold Coast returns tomorrow (Friday, July 3) and runs throughout the weekend.

GovHack is an annual open data competition held throughout Australia and New Zealand and which attracts the best and brightest young minds working with government open data.

Over the three days, teams access open data and create a proof of concept and a video that tells the story of how the data may be reused. Many of the concepts are innovative community apps or websites.

GovHack provides students with an excellent opportunity to work with industry and government to generate ideas and code solutions addressing important problems facing our community and the nation.


What: GovHack Gold Coast 2015, hosted by Griffith University and sponsored by City of Gold Coast.

Where: Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus — Building G30 Room 1.08

When: July 3-5, 2015