If you haven’t heard of the term “big data,” get ready.

In the world of technology, talk of big data has already taken off, said Todd Kitta, a business intelligence technology specialist at Microsoft Corp. For the rest of the world, it’s about to.

Kitta was in Des Moines last month to talk with clients about the power of big data solutions: the ability to take massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and turn it into something understandable and meaningful.

“We’re still at the beginning of this revolution,” he said. “We’re just getting started, I think. I think the next decade is going to be the decade of data.”

For example, almost every post on Twitter contains data of some kind that essentially will be stored for the rest of time. But the amount of data about any particular topic on Twitter is so large, growing so fast, that it’s impossible to keep up with.

Kitta’s colleague, Microsoft technology strategist Brian Donaldson, asserts that “the first companies that come up with creative ways to use (big data) are the companies that will win.”

“And probably not by just a little,” Kitta adds.

Here’s a crash course on what your company should know about big data, how you can use it and what it can do for your business.


Your 5-minute guide to big data

What is it?


“Big data,” says Sondra Ashmore, a certified executive project manager at IBM Corp., “is just the fact that we have a ton of data that’s being generated.”

By the end of 2014, International Data Corp. predicts there will be 8 zettabytes worth of data in the world, and 35 zettabytes by the end of 2020. To put that in perspective, there are a trillion gigabytes in a zettabyte, and today only about 2.5 zettabytes of data exist. In other words, the numbers are incomprehensibly large, and growing fast. Most data generated in the past was what is called structured data, items that were organized in a database or Microsoft Excel-type spreadsheet. For example, hospitals would keep structured data on patients such as age, gender and family history.

However, in today’s technology-heavy world, there’s a large amount of unstructured data that’s just “out there,” as Ashmore describes it. In U.S. hospitals, millions of patients wear heart monitors, all of which contain data. The trick is finding ways to take those massive quantities of structured and unstructured data and derive meaning from it. Technology, says Kitta from Microsoft, has made it much easier to store and keep the large amounts of data. Now there are methods available to start mining that data more easily.


Who is providing big data solutions?


The short answer: many companies.

Microsoft, for example, just released a major update to all of its client products with Office 2013. Using technology that has been in the works for two years, Microsoft programs such as Excel now have the ability to “do some very powerful analytics,” Microsoft’s Donaldson said. The programs run advanced algorithms that can point out patterns not easily seen by humans. This allows people who aren’t data specialists to explore big data.

IBM, says Ashmore, offers products for its enterprise software customers that can give a lot of data insights, and can even put together full data solutions for a company on a specific project.

Some companies can solve specific problems on an industrywide level, such as Banno LLC, a Cedar Falls-based company that works with bank statement data.


Who can use it?

Anybody can use big data solutions, in the sense that companies such as Microsoft and IBM are making them available for organizations.

But having the right people makes all the difference in analyzing big data, Donaldson said.

“You can have all the computing power in the world, and if you don’t know the right question to ask, then what good is it?” he said.

Donaldson believes that big data exploration should be a companywide initiative. What’s better, he asks: Having 10 “big data people” looking at numbers, or 2,000 people in a company who are able to use the data?

“It’s all about the democratization of big data,” adds Kitta. “Making it available to everyone. Everyone playing their little part, tweaking this, tweaking that, and all of a sudden you have insight.”


Why use it?

Understanding and analyzing big data can lead to having a better understanding of your customers, tech experts say.

Take a health insurance company, for example. The company could use data to study segments of the entire population. For example, it could combine information about urban centers versus rural centers with information about disease susceptibility based on ethnicity, poverty rates and other demographic information to start making more informed choices about what kind of insurance a customer needs.

There are just “massive amounts of data and massive amounts of sources,” Donaldson said.

Great Western Bank is an example of a company that Microsoft has worked with on big data solutions. The bank has used big data to determine what products customers might be looking for, and to measure how effectively it can engage customers through different methods.

“The interpretation of all of (the data) is where the value is,” said Wade Arnold, the founder and CEO of Banno. “I think the value in it is just as cost-effectively as you can store more data now, you can also interpret that data in the same cost-effective manner. And that’s the exciting value of it.”


Examples: Cedar Falls-based Banno LLC matches unstructured data from the Internet with private data from its client banks to help the banks create a better user experience. The company downloads information from about 22 million websites each night, said founder Wade Arnold, and indexes the websites to get keywords that banks can use to better see a consumer’s transaction history. For example, if a bank that sells insurance can easily find that customers are paying two different insurance companies, the bank can reach out to the customers and let them know about options to consolidate the plans and save money. That’s only one example, but those types of processes, without a big data solution, take time and manpower, meaning that only the bank’s wealthiest customers typically get that kind of service dedicated to them. “We’re doing things to help them find other ways they can save the consumer money, and then the consumer is more loyal to the bank,” Arnold said.

In a more sophisticated example, researchers at Iowa State’s College of Engineering are working on developing computing solutions to allow scientists to utilize big data. For instance, according to a January Iowa State News Service story, plant scientists can provide massive amounts of data on how plants react to their outside environment. In particular, they can manipulate growing conditions for thousands of seeds and seedlings to see how they react when light intensity is slightly adjusted. Iowa State has received $5.5 million for four major biology research projects and has partnered with a number of companies, including IBM and Monsanto Co.

Des Moines-based CDS Global Inc. provides data solutions for 150 million customer files for nearly 60 percent of the publishing industry, said Will Aeschliman, the company’s communications and digital content manager. CDS Global recently launched its Prospect Insights tool, which helps companies with consumer data acquisition. The tool analyzes existing customer profiles to look for purchasing tendencies and can use data it already knows to target new customers. For example, a magazine could run a customer acquisition campaign using CDS Global data to find women between the ages of 65 and 84 years old who live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho or Utah.

According to a recent NPR article, Netflix Inc., which streams TV shows and movies online, used big data to determine the likelihood of success for its hit show “House of Cards.” Netflix, which has millions of customers, knew what its customers were watching, how many were fans of actor Kevin Spacey and director David Fincher, and how many of its customers were streaming the original British version of the show.