From the mail to McDonald's, big data is all around us

big mac

The Big Mac: Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a big data-driven quality assurance program for the bun. (Photo courtesy of McDonald's.)

Big data helps mail your letters, it makes your burgers better, and it allows intelligence agencies to piece together disparate pieces of data into insights that might help them foil the next terrorist attack.

Big data early adopters were a hot topic March 12 at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s second annual Big Data Technology Symposium, as speakers briefed an audience of industry and federal executives on businesses and agencies already making use of big data.

Keynote speaker Rita Sallam, research vice president for Gartner, outlined several successful uses of big data – sometimes in tongue-in-cheek fashion that had the audience laughing – but the many examples provided both inspiration and solace to those whose agencies have yet to jump into the big data fray.

Noteworthy private sector successes included:

  •  McDonald’s using vast amounts of operational data to automate the inspection of its burger buns, perfecting "proper seed distribution and color";
  •  Healthcare providers creating mobile applications for doctors that include patient genetics, family history, reference data with comparisons to similar patients; and
  •  Carpets that are sold with sensors that record senior citizens’ every movement and attempt to detect abnormalities that could signal a health issue.

On the public-sector side of things, big data use cases included: the Centers for Disease Control leveraging analytics tools to predict the flu in real-time; the Department of Treasury using complex algorithms to predict insider trading and detect fraud; and the United States Postal Service using a complex mesh of supercomputers and 16 terabytes of in-memory computing to sift through 400 billion records in real time to combat fraud.

Successes though they may be, Sallam and other speakers were clear: Working big data solutions do not happen overnight.

"The reality is these solutions involved changes to organizations that have been successful with them," Sallam said. "It takes new skills, cultural attitudes -- are you even prepared to hear the truth if you get it? Do your processes support new information" coming in?

"What’s possible is great, and value is huge, but executing is not easy," Sallam said.

Dominic Sale, senior policy analyst in the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of E-Government and Information Technology, said the government is "swimming in data," both structured and unstructured. Even though the "meticulous capture of every government function has been going on for years," leading to a smorgasbord of potentially exploitable records to glean insights from, Sale said cultural, legal, security and privacy barriers remain in the way, as does a "lack in talent" that agencies can recruit to analyze insights.

Yet the time is now for big data, Sale said.

"This is the right time, the technology has arrived – there’s a reason we weren’t having a big data conference ten years ago," Sale said. "We simply can’t afford to wait longer. As government, it’s imperative to serve people."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Thu, Mar 14, 2013

"United States Postal Service [is] using a complex mesh of supercomputers and 16 terabytes of in-memory computing to sift through 400 billion records in real time to combat fraud. " Ummm... I wouldn't hold the USPS up as a paragon of "success". However, I think that you might have identified one of the reasons that USPS is failing. Why do they need a network of supercomputers whose capability exceeds that of NOAA's weather forecast centers? Didn't the mail get delivered back when there were no ZIP codes or barcodes? USPS needs to take a step backwards, away from big data and focus on getting "back to basics."

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