The age of data and opportunities

IBM Fellow, Data Science Group, IBM Research, IBM

We live in the age of data, where everything that surrounds us is linked to a data source and everything in our lives is captured digitally. The physical world around us has turned into raw information: internet, video, call data records, customer transactions, healthcare records, news, literature, scientific publications, economic data, weather data, geo-spatial data, stock market data, city and government records.

We like to call it big data—and it is indeed getting bigger, growing exponentially with each passing day. Luckily, the opportunities to take this data and marry it with analytics to improve all aspects of our lives are also growing exponentially.

We now have capabilities to mine medical literature, research and electronic health records, and look for improvements in treatments, find personalized therapies, define new healthcare benchmarks and best practices. We are sequencing genomes looking to cure cancer. We can forecast the demand for energy to prevent shortages, improve space utilization and reduce energy use. In education, using content analytics, machine learning and predictive modeling of longitudinal student records, we are now able to identify similar students based on their pattern of learning, predict performance and learning needs and align specific content and successful teaching techniques with each student to enable their best performance. We place sensors in the fields and farms; by collecting real-time data on weather, soil and air quality, crop maturity, equipment costs and availability, we can now use mathematical models to predict future conditions and make better decisions with regard to when to plant, when to harvest and when to fertilize, helping increase the yield while minimizing the impact to the environment.


The Internet of Things (IoT) offers a new way to analyze and measure city life, from detecting if water pipes are leaking, to measuring traffic flows on the roads and understanding if buildings are using energy in the most efficient way. The availability of highly localized weather predictions focused on municipal operations has the potential to mitigate the impact of severe weather on citizens and local infrastructure.

It is all big data.

There are no limits or boundaries to how big data and analytics can be applied to touch individual lives, improve how we live, work, operate cities and factories, run governments and manage businesses. Whether in Southeast Europe or the remotest parts of Africa, in public good or in government, in small businesses or in large enterprises, whether it is applied locally or over the cloud—the opportunities to utilize big data and analytics exist in all aspects of our lives.

For example, IBM has recently announced a citizen engagement and analytics system in Sierra Leone that enables communities affected by Ebola to communicate their issues and concerns directly to the government.

Today, the Croatian government is already using an IBM IT infrastructure to provide e-government services to Croats in minutes and hours, rather than the days it traditionally required. The latest government project saw the Croatian national population registry being integrated into the system along with the information systems of the ministry of finance and ministry of public administration, to name just a few. Through this project, many government processes will be optimized including taxes, birth, death and social security registration. Such advancements in government services release enormous amounts of government funds, which can in turn be directed towards other initiatives. We are also seeing the rise of open data movement where more and more organizations (including national, state and local governments) are publishing data outside their firewall for citizens to leverage and  generate knowledge, insight, transparencies and progress.

Data promises to be for the 21st century what steam power was for the 18th, electricity for the 19th and hydrocarbons for the 20th; we are truly experiencing a new industrial revolution. We are also experiencing profound changes in the information technology landscape. The data around us has become so vast, so demanding, there is so much and it is so complex, that it is not about the processing speed any more; we truly need deeper forms of computational intelligence to make sense out of this new universe of information.

IBM Watson is one example of such intelligence. Soon the new types of cognitive systems that can sense, predict, infer, recommend, hypothesize and reason will be working together with us, helping us solve problems like never before.

Data means information. Data means facts; it is insight, knowledge and power to control outcomes. I have outlined only few examples of what is possible when we ask the right questions, when we arm ourselves with data and tools to analyze it, when we think out of the box and believe that every problem can be solved. It is the time of big data, big changes and big opportunities. Let's make use of them.