Emerging Methods

What is Big Data? Types, Tools and Examples

Big Data

Big Data


Big Data is a term that refers to extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions. These data sets are often so large and complex that traditional data processing software can’t manage them.

Big Data usually involves data gathering, data analysis, and data implementation.

It’s characterized by four key properties, often referred to as the 4Vs:

  1. Volume: The quantity of generated and stored data. The size of the data determines its value and potential insight.
  2. Velocity: The speed at which the data is generated and processed to meet the demands and challenges that lie in the path of growth and development.
  3. Variety: The type and nature of the data. This helps people who analyze it to effectively use the resulting insight. Data can come in all types of formats – from structured, numeric data in traditional databases, to unstructured text documents, emails, videos, audios, stock ticker data, and financial transactions.
  4. Veracity: The quality of captured data can vary greatly, affecting the accurate analysis. Veracity refers to the trustworthiness of the data.

More recently, two more Vs have been added to this list:

  1. Value: It’s all well and good having access to big data but unless we can turn it into value it is useless.
  2. Variability: This refers to the inconsistency which can be shown by the data at times, thus hampering the process of being able to handle and manage the data effectively.

History of Big Data

The concept of “big data” has been around for years; most organizations now understand that if they capture all the data that streams into their businesses, they can apply analytics and gain significant value from it. But the concept has a long history and continually evolves.

Here is a brief history of big data:

Ancient History and Early Modern Era (3000 BCE – Late 19th Century): Record keeping and data collection have been an integral part of human civilization from the earliest times. Ancient cultures developed elaborate systems for collecting, sorting, and storing data, although the volumes of data were relatively small by modern standards.

Early 20th Century: The invention of computing devices like punch card machines allowed for the handling of larger data sets. During this time, the term “big data” was not yet coined, but the seeds of the concept were planted.

Late 20th Century: The advent of modern computing technology in the second half of the 20th century revolutionized the possibilities for data collection, storage, and analysis. Database management systems, the foundation of modern data processing, emerged during this time. The term “big data” was first used in the 1990s to refer to increasing data volumes and the challenges these presented.

Early 21st Century: The digital revolution at the turn of the century led to an exponential increase in the production of data. The proliferation of the internet, social media, mobile devices, IoT, and other technologies led to the generation of massive amounts of data, often in real-time.

2005: Roger Mougalas from O’Reilly Media coined the term “big data” for the first time in its modern sense to refer to a large set of data that is almost impossible to manage and process using traditional business intelligence tools.

2010 – Present: The rise of innovative technologies like Hadoop and Spark allowed for the processing of big data in a distributed fashion, significantly speeding up computations. The prominence of big data has also given rise to data science and machine learning, where predictive models are built and validated on large sets of data.

In recent years, the field of big data has continued to evolve rapidly, with advances in areas like cloud computing, AI, and edge computing further expanding the possibilities for big data storage and analysis.

Types of Big Data

Big data can be categorized into three main types: Structured, Unstructured, and Semi-structured.

Structured Data

This is data that is organized and formatted in a way so it’s easily searchable in relational databases. Examples of structured data include data in SQL databases, Excel spreadsheets, or CSV files. This type of data is often generated by machines or applications and includes things like sensor data, web log data, financial data, transactional data, etc.

Unstructured Data

This is data that is not organized in a pre-defined manner or does not have a pre-defined data model, thus it is not a good fit for a traditional relational database. Examples of unstructured data include text files, social media posts, email messages, pictures, videos, etc. This type of data is typically human-generated and makes up a significant portion of internet data.

Semi-Structured Data

This is data that falls between structured and unstructured data. It does not have the formal structure of data models associated with relational databases but contains tags, other markers, or key-value pairs that separate data elements and enable information grouping and hierarchies. Examples of semi-structured data include JSON, XML, and YAML files.

How Big Data Works?

Big Data involves collecting, processing, and analyzing large amounts of data to extract valuable insights. Here is a simplified overview of how the big data process works:

Data Collection: The first step in the big data process is data collection. The data can come from a wide variety of sources including business transactions, social media posts, sensors in IoT devices, log files from servers, pictures, videos, and much more.

Data Storage: Once the data is collected, it needs to be stored so that it can be processed. Traditional databases often aren’t capable of storing such large amounts of data, so alternative storage solutions are used. These might include distributed storage solutions (such as Hadoop Distributed File System or cloud storage platforms), NoSQL databases, or data warehousing solutions.

Data Processing: With the data stored, the next step is to process it into a format that can be analyzed. This might involve cleaning the data to remove errors or duplicates, transforming the data into a suitable format, and loading the data into an analytics system. This process is often referred to as ETL (Extract, Transform, Load). For processing large amounts of data, distributed processing frameworks like Apache Hadoop or Spark are commonly used.

Data Analysis: Once the data is processed, it’s ready to be analyzed. This could involve running queries on the data, using statistical methods to identify trends and patterns, or applying machine learning algorithms to make predictions. The analysis may be performed using a variety of data analytics tools and languages such as R, Python, SQL, Tableau, or Apache Flink.

Insight and Decision Making: The ultimate goal of the big data process is to provide insights that can drive decision-making. This might involve creating reports or dashboards that visualize the data, using predictive models to forecast future trends, or identifying hidden patterns that can inform strategic decisions.

Data Security & Management: Throughout all these stages, it’s crucial to ensure that the data is secure and well-managed. This means protecting against data breaches, ensuring data privacy, managing who has access to the data, backing up the data, and more.

Big Data Tools and Technologies

There are numerous tools and technologies that are used for handling big data. These tools help in data collection, storage, processing, analysis, visualization, and maintaining security. Here are some of the key tools and technologies used in big data:

Apache Hadoop: An open-source software framework for storing data and running applications on clusters of commodity hardware. It provides massive storage for any kind of data, enormous processing power, and the ability to handle virtually limitless concurrent tasks or jobs.

Apache Spark: Another open-source distributed computing system that is designed for fast computation. It provides an interface for programming entire clusters with implicit data parallelism and fault-tolerance.

NoSQL Databases: NoSQL databases like MongoDB, Cassandra, and HBase are often used for storing big data. They offer more flexibility and scalability than traditional SQL databases.

Apache Kafka: A distributed streaming platform that is used for building real-time data pipelines and streaming apps. It is horizontally scalable, fault-tolerant, and incredibly fast.

Apache Flink: A framework and distributed processing engine for stateful computations over unbounded and bounded data streams.

Hive and Pig: Apache Hive and Pig are data warehousing and analysis tools that are used for processing and analyzing large datasets stored in Hadoop files.

Cloud Storage Platforms: Cloud platforms like Amazon S3, Google Cloud Storage, and Microsoft Azure Blob Storage are often used for storing big data due to their scalability and durability.

Data Lakes: Data lakes like Delta Lake or Apache Hudi allow storing large amounts of raw data in its native format until it’s needed.

Data Visualization Tools: Tools like Tableau, PowerBI, and Qlikview are used to visualize big data, making it easier for users to understand the patterns and trends in the data.

Machine Learning Platforms: For big data analysis involving machine learning, platforms like TensorFlow, PyTorch, or Google’s BigQuery ML can be used.

ELT/ETL Tools: Tools like Informatica, Talend, and Google Cloud Dataflow are used for Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) or Extract, Load, Transform (ELT) operations to prepare data for analysis.

Data Governance and Security Tools: Tools like Apache Atlas, Apache Ranger, and Okera provide governance, metadata management, and security for big data.

Examples of Big Data

Some Examples of Big Data are as follows:

Healthcare – Cleveland Clinic: Cleveland Clinic uses big data for personalized medicine, particularly in cancer treatment. They use analytics tools to compare patient’s medical records with a large database of cancer patients. This comparison helps doctors determine which treatments had the best outcomes for patients with similar medical histories. In this way, the healthcare providers can make more informed decisions about treatment plans.

Transportation – The New York City Department of Transportation: The New York City Department of Transportation collects data from toll plazas, GPS devices in taxis, and from a variety of other sources to manage the city’s traffic in real time. This data helps them control traffic light timings, identify bottlenecks, and effectively plan road layouts to optimize traffic flow across the city.

Netflix: Netflix collects large volumes of data from its over 200 million subscribers to provide personalized recommendations. They analyze data related to users’ viewing habits, including what they watch, when they watch, where they watch, and on what device they watch. Netflix uses this data to provide personalized suggestions and even influences its decisions on what original content to produce.

Amazon: Amazon uses big data in a number of ways, but one of the most visible is its recommendation engine. The system uses algorithms based on users’ purchase history, items they’ve viewed, and what other customers with similar behaviors have bought or viewed. This makes each customer’s shopping experience unique and tailored to their preferences. Additionally, Amazon uses big data to manage inventory and optimize logistics.

Uber: Uber uses big data to determine price rates, implement surge pricing during peak times, predict rider demand, and optimize pickup locations. Their entire business model revolves around the real-time analysis of data, which helps them match riders with drivers effectively and efficiently. Uber also uses this data to predict where and when drivers are most likely to be needed.

Applications of Big Data

The applications of big data are vast and cut across nearly every industry. Here are some examples:

Healthcare: Big data is used to predict epidemics, cure diseases, improve quality of life, and avoid preventable deaths. It aids in patient care and health record management and can even be used for genomic analysis to develop personalized treatment plans.

Retail: Retailers can use big data to better understand their customer preferences, to optimize pricing, to manage inventory, and to improve sales. Personalized marketing campaigns are often driven by insights gained from big data.

Finance and Banking: Banks and financial institutions leverage big data for fraud detection and prevention, customer segmentation, risk management, personalized offerings, and regulatory compliance.

Transportation: Big data is used for route planning, traffic prediction, fuel efficiency maximization, and predictive maintenance in the transportation industry.

Energy: Utilities can use big data for optimizing energy generation and distribution, predictive maintenance on grid equipment, and improving customer service through more accurate billing and outage prediction.

Manufacturing: Big data helps in predicting machine failures, improving supply chain efficiency, enhancing product quality, and managing inventory in the manufacturing sector.

Education: Educational institutions can use big data to improve student success rates by identifying at-risk students, making personalized course recommendations, and improving curriculum based on student performance.

Agriculture: In agriculture, big data is used for precision farming – using data about weather patterns, soil conditions, and crop information to make smarter decisions about crop growth and harvesting.

Media and Entertainment: Companies like Netflix and Spotify use big data to make personalized recommendations, understand viewing/listening patterns, and drive customer engagement.

Government: Governments use big data to improve service delivery, increase transparency, reduce crime, and make cities safer and smarter.

Insurance: Insurance companies leverage big data for premium determination, claim analysis, risk assessment, and fraud detection.

Telecommunications: Telecommunication companies can use big data to optimize network strategy, improve customer satisfaction, reduce churn rate, and enhance service quality.

Advantages of Big Data

Big data offers numerous advantages across various industries. Here are some key benefits:

  • Improved Decision Making: Big data analytics can help organizations make more informed decisions by providing insights from vast amounts of data. This can lead to better outcomes, more efficient operations, and improved strategic planning.
  • Cost Reduction: Big data technologies like Hadoop and cloud-based analytics can bring significant cost advantages when it comes to storing large amounts of data. Plus, they can identify more efficient ways of doing business.
  • Faster, Better Decision Making: With the speed of Hadoop and in-memory analytics, combined with the ability to analyze new sources of data, businesses are able to analyze information immediately and make decisions based on what they’ve learned.
  • New Products and Services: With the ability to gauge customer needs and satisfaction through analytics comes the power to give customers what they want. More companies are creating new products to meet customers’ needs.
  • Understanding Market Conditions: Big data analytics helps companies understand market conditions, customer behaviors, and industry trends. This information can help businesses develop marketing strategies and make critical business decisions.
  • Customer Experience and Retention: Big data tools can help businesses improve customer service, build stronger relationships, and understand customer preferences. This can lead to higher customer retention and personalized customer experience.
  • Risk Management: Big data can be used to improve risk management solutions and ensure regulatory compliance across different industries, especially in finance and healthcare.
  • Operational Efficiency: By analyzing patterns and trends, businesses can optimize their operations, improve efficiency, and reduce costs. This is particularly applicable in manufacturing and logistics.
  • Competitive Advantage: Companies using big data analytics can gain a competitive advantage by gaining new insights into their markets, customers, and operations.
  • Security and Fraud Detection: In the cybersecurity field, big data analytics can detect, prevent, and mitigate cyber attacks and fraud by analyzing patterns and anomalies in the data.

Disadvantages of Big Data

Despite its numerous advantages, big data also presents several challenges and disadvantages. Here are some of them:

  • Privacy Issues: One of the biggest concerns with big data is the issue of privacy. With so much data being collected, there is a risk that sensitive information could be misused or fall into the wrong hands. Privacy laws are also complex and vary between regions, making compliance a challenge.
  • Data Security: Big data involves managing vast amounts of data, which could increase the risk of data breaches. Companies need to invest in strong security measures to protect the data.
  • Quality and Accuracy: The usefulness of big data is dependent on the quality and accuracy of the data collected. If the data is outdated, inaccurate, or biased, it can lead to incorrect conclusions.
  • Data Storage: Storing large volumes of data requires a significant amount of storage space, which can be expensive. It also requires a strategy for data backup and recovery in case of data loss.
  • Complexity: Big data is often unstructured and can come from many different sources in different formats, which can make it difficult to process and analyze.
  • Integration Issues: Companies often struggle with integrating big data technologies with their existing systems and data.
  • Lack of Skilled Personnel: There is a high demand for professionals with skills in big data analytics, but there is a shortage of such professionals in the market. This can make it difficult for companies to leverage big data effectively.
  • Cost: Despite some potential cost savings, implementing big data solutions can require significant upfront investment in infrastructure, technology, and skills development.
  • Ethical Considerations: The use of big data can raise ethical questions, such as how the data is collected, who has given consent, and how the data is used.

About the author

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer