A key driver of the growth of data is the way we've digitized many of our everyday activities, such as shopping (increasingly done online) or downloading music. Another factor: our dependence on electronic devices, all of which leave digital footprints every time we send an e-mail, search online, post a message, text, or tweet.
Virtually every institution in society, from government to the local utility, is churning out its own torrent of electronic digits – about our billing records, our employment, our electricity use. Add in the huge array of sensors that now exist, measuring everything from traffic flow to the spoilage of fruit during shipment, and the world is awash in information that we had no way to uncover before – all aggregated and analyzed by increasingly powerful computers.
Most of this data doesn't affect us. Amassing information alone doesn't mean it's valuable. Yet the new ability to mine the right information, discover patterns and relationships, already affects our everyday lives.
Anyone, for instance, who has a navigation screen on a car dashboard uses data streaming from 24 satellites 11,000 miles above Earth to pinpoint his or her exact location. People living in Los Angeles and dozens of other cities now participate, knowingly or not, in the growing phenomenon of "predictive policing" – authorities' use of algorithms to identify crime trends. Tennis fans use IBM SlamTracker, an online analytic tool, to find out exactly how many return of serves Andy Murray needed to win Wimbledon.
When we use sites like SlamTracker, companies take note of our browsing habits and, through either the miracle or the meddling of Big Data, use that information to send us personal pitches. That's what happens when AOL greets you with a pop-up ad (Slazenger tennis balls – 70 percent off!).