The allure and trap of big data

Posted: March 25, 2013

When the chief technology officer of the Central Intelligence Agency agreed to come to Philadelphia to talk about how his organization wants to know everything about everybody, I wanted to be there.

After all, the CIA is a company, of sorts, with all the assets and liabilities that come with trying to identify threats to the United States. That Gus Hunt would be the keynote speaker at the Phorum 2013 technology conference made me curious about his message to an audience of emerging-growth firms.

Alas, Hunt was recalled to Washington, and would not be repeating the comment he'd made in New York a day earlier - that the CIA tries "to collect everything and hang on to it forever."

Now there is a mind-bending big-data challenge. Buzz phrase though it may be, big data refers to the massive amounts of difficult-to-analyze information collected by businesses, government agencies, and other organizations.

How much data? According to the Digital Universe report produced by International Data Corp. in December, the amount of digital data produced - uploaded smartphone pictures and YouTube videos, ATM transactions, Facebook "likes," and more - is expected to grow from 1.2 zettabytes in 2010 to more than 40 zettabytes by 2020.

IDC said the 2020 figure would amount to 5,200 gigabytes of data for every person on the planet. So you can see why the CIA might salivate over the opportunity to capture and analyze 5,200 GB of your digital life. How about the biggest Philly 50 companies?

Judging by some of the 119 attendees of a Temple University big-data conference in September, the answer is yes. Executives from Campbell Soup Co., Independence Blue Cross, Lockheed Martin Corp., Merck & Co. Inc., and Wawa Inc. all gave speeches on how they were approaching the opportunities posed by big data.

However, the pinch-hit speaker at Thursday's Phorum, presented by the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies, warned those in attendance not to run back to their offices and immediately launch big-data initiatives.

The often-funny Peter Coffee, vice president and head of platform research at Inc., said the complexity of the challenge could defeat an organization that rushes in without knowing what it wants to learn. "All we want is a Magic 8 Ball that actually works," he said.

Health care and education are two areas that might benefit from big data, Coffee said. But both systems are broken and standard practices need to be fixed before billions of dollars are spent for little gain, he said.

"If you don't study how people do what they do, you'll wonder why you spent so much to do so little," he said.

Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980,, or follow @PhillyInc on Twitter.

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