Living by the Numbers: Big Data Knows What Your Future Holds

Countless Big Data applications are also being tested in medicine and science. Even the public sector, especially police departments and security agencies, not always the most progressive when it comes to IT, have recognized the potential benefits in their fields.

What captivates so many people is the promise of gazing into the future, thanks to the lightning speed at which massive amounts of data can be analyzed. In fact, algorithms allow for astonishingly precise predictions of human behavior, be it in front of supermarket shelves, in traffic or when it comes to credit-card payment patterns.

In 2010, Google predicted a wave of flu outbreaks on the basis of user searches. American data specialist Nate Silver predicted the outcome of the last US presidential election well in advance and more precisely than all demographers.

'The End of Chance'

Some cities even predict the probability of crimes in certain neighborhoods. The method, known as "predictive policing," seems like something straight out of a Hollywood film, and in fact it is. In Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," perpetrators were arrested for crimes they hadn't even committed yet.

Finding the presumed delinquents also doesn't seem to present a problem. Scientists have figured out that, with the help of our mobile phone geolocation and address book data, they can predict with some certainty where we will be tomorrow or at a certain time a year from now.

The increasing accuracy of such forecasts have led American tech guru Chris Anderson to proclaim that we are arriving at the "end of theory." Austrian media executive Rudi Klausnitzer, who has just written a book on the subject called "Das Ende des Zufalls" ("The End of Chance"), has reached a similar conclusion.

It is a prospect that is not altogether appealing to some. But many already rely on the prognostic ability of soulless algorithms in the most intimate spheres of life. The extensive questionnaires used by online dating agencies are fed into algorithms designed to increase the probability of finding a compatible partner.

A gold rush of sorts is taking shape in companies, research laboratories and some government agencies. In many places, the mantra of data is extolled as the new "oil" or "gold" of the 21st century. Some people are already benefiting financially: statisticians, physicists and so-called data scientists or data miners, who advise companies on Big Data applications. As with the classic American gold rush in the 19th century, most of the money is being made by those who sell equipment, tools and expertise, Big Data specialists like Blue Yonder, a company with 85 employees.

How Data Revolutionizes the Economy The man doesn't look much like a fortune-teller, and yet he repeatedly makes the same odd remark: "Our job is to provide predictions of all kinds." Uwe Weiss is the managing director of Blue Yonder, a company founded five years ago. Weiss doesn't consult tarot cards or scrutinize the entrails of innocent farm animals, but instead analyzes the columns of figures generated by supermarket cash registers, weather services, vacation schedules and traffic reports. All of this data flows into data analysis software developed by Blue Yonder, which, according to the company's advertising, can be used to provide customers like the Otto Group, one of the largest mail-order companies in the world, and the dm drugstore chain with "precise prognoses" -- on, for example, the expected sales of a specific item.

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