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Today, nearly every part of our world can reduced to a number. Physical, digital, alive, inanimate — everything is a source of data just waiting to be processed and analyzed. When the technologies for carrying out that processing and analysis improve, everything likely will be turned into data. It’s both a fascinating thought and a scary one, because for better or for worse, data will truly be a kingmaker.
We can see the writing on the wall already; in Google’s $400 billion valuation and steady creep into our homes, and in the National Security Agency’s relentless quest to suck up every piece of personal information under the sun. They want omnipotence and omnipresence, and they know the path to those goals is lined with data. And when we look past questions of whether we can stop them or if we even should want to, we should all see the same opportunity.
This opportunity is just one of the reasons why I’m so excited about the Structure Data conference Gigaom is putting on March 19-20 in New York.
Forget names and numbers placed nicely into tables. Our speakers will be talking about turning everything into a data source — documents, text, images, speech, sensors, music, movements, you name it. They’ll be talking about the latest and greatest ways to process this data too, from SQL queries in Hadoop to advanced artificial intelligence and deep learning. They come from places like Google Ideas, Palantir, Microsoft Research, Foursquare, Ford, McLaren, Dataminr, RunKeeper, SwiftKey, The Echo Nest, MetLife, Premise Data, Prism Skylabs and Turing AI, just to name a few.
All of these companies recognize that it’s possible to make a lot of money with data, and that the more creative you get with sourcing and analyzing it, the more money you stand to make. Some even realize that data can help save lives, shine light on atrocities and effect real social change. At this point, where there’s a will to do anything, there’s probably a way to make it happen.
Just consider all the things people and companies are analyzing and quantifying today, even beyond what we’ll talk about at the conference. There’s soil, seeds, weather and all things agricultural; ancient artifacts; genomes, proteomes and all things biological; the menus at your local restaurants; our social circles; how well we’re learning; and even our sleep schedules (Jawbone just raised another $250 million, and it wasn’t just because of speakers). We wanted more data about all these things to better understand how they work, and we figured out a way to get it and analyze it without the seemingly exorbitant time and effort it would have taken just 10 years ago.
None of this is without risk, of course. Easy access to data can have unwanted results in the hands of unscrupulous companies, institutions and individuals. To that end, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill will be at Structure Data to talk about that agency’s approach to protecting consumers in an age of big data. It might play a small role in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to anyone living in the United States — especially as websites and, increasingly, brick-and-mortar businesses get better at tracking our behaviors and discovering our identities.
But every technological revolution comes with its downsides and growing pains, and I think it’s a small minority who’d really rather go back to a simpler, but fundamentally harder time. The data era might prove scarier and more troublesome than the photographic era or the personal computing era in some ways, but the promise is arguably bigger as well. I have to think smart entrepreneurs, researchers, activists and even everyday individuals with the ability to collect and analyze whatever they need with relative ease, will result in a healthier, cheaper, more connected and, ultimately, better world.