Technological advancements and digital transformation are revolutionising the way businesses operate, with many actively converting data into insights to help them achieve their core business objectives. Through the use of big data and IoT, the UK economy is expected to generate £322 billion in revenue from 2015 to 2020, signalling that those organisations that fail to embrace big data may get left behind. But how do organisations obtain so much data about us? How do they know how old we are, who our friends are, what our favourite film is and where we spend our Friday evenings?

Well, the truth is that many of us fail to think twice about our digital footprint. Every computer we access, website we explore, App we launch and business we visit generates a trail of data that companies are actively capturing. Of course, most of us are aware that search engines like Google can see what we’ve been searching for but many of us, including myself, fail to register the fact that data is collected about us on a daily, even hourly basis and often it is with our full consent.

Mobiles and tablets have a big part to play in terms of feeding the big data pool. Think about your phone, is it brimming with mobile applications? I thought so, well a high proportion of those Apps have asked you to share your location and personal details, some even asking for access to your messages and contacts, yet most of us ‘agree’ to the terms of data use without a second thought.

Another clever data gatherer is social media, platforms that encourage users to openly broadcast their every move, interests, new job and relationship breakups. Facebook is expected to hit 2 billion monthly active users this Summer, so it’s no surprise that we’ve opened the door to a new realm of data, big data, that can be analysed in various ways, developing the so called big brother era.

A Forbes article highlighted 21 things that big data knows about you, and let’s just say it isn’t a great read for those who openly oppose the big brother concept. From your HR department knowing when you’re going to quit your job, Facebook knowing how intelligent you are and your child’s Barbie doll updating its makers on what you’re talking about, the list is a real eye opener and demonstrates the wealth of data being captured about us. The list even refers to a site called iknowwhereyourcatlives.com, yes you did read that correctly. It lets you view over 1 million public pictures of cats on a world map, locating them by the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in their metadata. Big data gone mad?

But is the ability to monitor our digital footprint and online activity necessarily a bad thing? The reality is that many of us feed big brother for our own personal enjoyment and benefit. Accepting big data into our lives gives us the ability to get what we want, just when we want it. How many times have you accessed sites like Amazon or Netflix to find a recommendation that’s a perfect suit? I’ve had many hours of enjoyment watching programmes and reading books that I wouldn’t have otherwise found if the data about my previous behaviour and preferences hadn’t been analysed.   

Like most of us I’m also a big fan of a freebie. Who doesn’t love a free meal on their birthday or a complementary coffee on their next visit to their local coffee shop? However, that coupon didn’t just magically appear in your inbox, somehow or other you’ve entered your personal details and consented to receiving promotional material from the brand or venue, whether that be on the company’s website, app, newsletter or WiFi platform.  

WiFi is something that consumers openly seek and even expect in the majority of today’s public spaces and venues. One venue that instantly springs to mind is an airport. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck in a foreign departure lounge, craving a quick look at my emails or social platforms but fearing the imminent threat of high roaming charges. I’m willing to enter pretty much any and every detail under the sun to access the WiFi whilst waiting to catch my flight home. This open committal to plate up my details is all for my own personal benefit. I didn’t question where my details would go or if I’d be bombarded with emails, all I wanted was an internet connection and as a result I could even benefit from personalised flight updates and duty free discounts thanks to the power of big data and the effective use of WiFi analytics.

However, big data isn’t just being used to please consumers, encourage spend and feed their desires, it is also being used in revolutionary ways to transform our roads, governments and healthcare services around the globe. According to a recent article published by the Harvard Business Review, the analysis of electronic healthcare records (EHR) collected in real time during doctor and hospital visits is allowing healthcare trusts and professionals to better understand diseases, treatment patterns, and clinical outcomes. It also allows companies to assess real-world challenges that cannot be observed in a clinical trial, such as drug compliance and the most effective use of health care resources.

So, as the world explores the benefits that big data can provide, more and more data will be captured as new technologies emerge. There are always going to be instances where data is misused but in the vast majority of cases the benefits far outweigh the potential for harm. Big data doesn’t need to be a big issue, it’s up to us, as consumers, to be vigilant and know exactly what we’re giving away, when, and to whom. It’s also up to those businesses collecting the data to ensure information is securely captured to prohibit the mismanagement of consumer information.