How Big Data can Make a Big Impact

Assoc Prof Nitin Indurkhya first coined the term ‘big data’ in a predictive data mining book that he co-authored in 1998. He has since been involved in various consultancy work on data mining and language technologies, and is now part of the academic team

Batman harnessing cutting-edge spyware technology to capture the Joker by hacking every phone in Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s superhero film The Dark Knight, Tom Cruise’s character on the run when accused of a future murder by an advanced crime prediction software in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction flick Minority Report; both movies have one thing in common.


“Big data is right in the middle of it,” said Associate Professor Nitin Indurkhya, who specialises in the subject at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). Hollywood has given big data a bad rep, but in the real world, over three decades of experience in the field tells him otherwise.

“Big data helps with quality of life, raise standards of living and improve productivity,” said Assoc Prof Indurkhya, who coined the term ‘big data’ while co-authoring a predictive data guidebook published in 1998. “There are a lot of benefits.”


This is thanks to a rapidly improving ability to process valuable information from the sheer quantity of digital information available worldwide today. In essence, this is what big data is all about. “It is all about scale. It’s referring to the amount of data we have,” he explained. 


And if this massive trove of information is applied correctly using techniques like predictive analytics and machine learning, the world only stands to benefit.


The Ultimate COVID-19 Weapon

The spotlight on big data has significantly brightened in the last two years when it became a powerful tool to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability to access and analyse large data sets of patients worldwide allowed common symptoms to be quickly identified and this helped facilitate faster diagnosis and treatment.


“If patients can get diagnosed really fast, it can mean the difference between life and death for them,” he said.


This dual force of information and prediction also helped countries take preemptive measures to prepare for incoming waves of cases. For instance, BlueDot Insights – a predictive analytics cloud platform – was crucial to Taiwan’s stellar success in containing the initial outbreak of the virus. Getting an accurate forecast of the swiftly emerging threat allowed the country to shut its borders early, saving lives in the process.  


“These are some of the ways in which predictive analytics can really help when you have something that is fast-moving, and you need information on how things evolve,” he said.


One area where big data truly helped turn the tide against the pandemic was through the rapid development and rollout of vaccines. What typically took 10 to 15 years to make was achieved in months.


Big data was central to the lightning-fast success. “This happened because people were using predictive analytics techniques to do trials,” explained Assoc Prof Indurkhya. “By using computers to do simulations, they could use analytic techniques to fast-track the probe.”


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