Just four years ago, someone wanted to do a Wikipedia entry on Big Data. Wikipedia said no; there was nothing special about the term – it just combined two common words. Today, Big Data seems everywhere, ushering in what advocates consider some of the biggest changes since Euclid.
Want to get elected to public office? Put a bunch of computer geeks in a room and have them comb through databases to glean who might vote for you – then target them with micro-tailored messages, as President Obama famously did in 2012.
Want to solve poverty in Africa? Analyze text messages and social media networks to detect early signs of joblessness, epidemics, and other problems, as the United Nations is trying to do.
Eager to find the right mate? Use algorithms to analyze an infinite number of personality traits to determine who's the best match for you, as many online dating sites now do.
What exactly is Big Data? What makes it new? Different? What's the downside?
Such questions have evoked intense interest, especially since June 5. On that day, former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden revealed that, like Ms. Mandelbaum or Rothman, the NSA had also asked a question:
Can we find terrorists using Big Data – like the phone records of hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans? Could we get those records from, say, Verizon?