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Part of Western Governors University

August 14, 2019

Information Technology

What is big data?

Hands holding phones over spreadsheet of big data

You’ve likely heard the term, but what exactly is “Big Data”? To put it simply, Big Data is the generating, processing, and analysis of structured or unstructured data that is obtained from an organization. Things like online medical records and social media have increased the amount of personal information that we input online. All of this data that is generated needs to go through processing and analytics in order to be useful for organizations.

As we input more of our personal information online, data privacy and data protection is becoming more important discussion. There are concerns about how company's sell user data, how that data gets used, and how data privacy is impacted because of this.

This term refers to discerning what information about people or situations might be useful in the future for a company or organization. Applying complex analysis procedures to extremely large data sets is the process of parsing this data

Today, this data requires the use of new data analytics techniques, which can incorporate machine learning to break down large data sets. This mass collection of personal data, which is often sensitive, has sparked concern among the public regarding data privacy and data protection, and the ethical use of the information. Security breaches have also come to the forefront as a major concern, and organizations are working to improve security.

Big data analytics.

How is the data analyzed? These data sets are often too large to be examined in meaningful ways by traditional data analysis techniques. Analytics of this information often involves using programmable machine learning to teach AI how to handle and analyze massive data sets. The term big data analytics is often used interchangeably with Big Data because the management and analysis of the data is so central to making it useful, relevant, or coherent.

Big data blue blur

Big data examples.

One problem with Big Data is the uncertainty of how the information is being used by organizations. Americans generally think that it’s too hard to find out what’s being done with their data. Many also confused about how private information is being used, and almost half did not understand how their data was being used.

When you understand how medical organizations or businesses use your personal data, you're likely to feel more confident in giving your information as a patient or a client.

What does structured or unstructured data look like, and what are some of its common applications? Here are some examples.


Big Data in clinical healthcare is being used to analyze patient records. It can divulge insights that help doctors to treat patients or improve patient experiences in healthcare facilities. As patients need to transfer to different medical facilities or need different healthcare treatments, the transfer of healthcare and patient records can help the transitions be much easier. Electronic health records all online make it easier for a patient and medical staff to work together to move healthcare information forward.

Healthcare managers act as analysts and use health data to track trends in patient satisfaction, clinical visits, patient treatments, and more.


Big Data in banking involves very sensitive customer information and is used to identify consumer trends and to flag outliers as possible cases of identity fraud. One of the many benefits of data analytics in banking is the way it helps keep users safe. But it also involves very sensitive customer information, which can then be used against users. Breaches in the security of financial institutions understandably causes the most concern and alarm among the public. Users are often rightly concerned about their data, and want to be sure that privacy and protection is taken seriously with their chosen bank.


Data offers valuable insights into consumer thinking, behavior, and activity. Marketing professionals in particular will leverage data to discover unique insights into the mind of consumers which can influence the messaging that they craft to sell a particular product or service. Security is particularly relevant in this use.

For obvious reasons, marketers want to reach the largest audiences possible, and these insights help them target their messaging toward specific demographics of consumers that may benefit from a product or service. Marketers need to be careful with the large amounts of data they are able to analyze, both structured and unstructured, so customer privacy remains in tact. 


Data can help businesses to identify trends, helping them to minimize risk, adopt efficient supply chain practices, and inform product development based on consumer needs. As with all industries, the more data businesses can garner in regard to their customers and customer behavior, the better. Businesses create better relationships with their customers when they use big data technology and analytics to optimize customer service. Technologically inclined companies are adopting blockchain technology to improve their supply chains and make the retail process more efficient. Privacy protection of customer data is important to businesses, as they work to use secure technology that helps prevent data breaches.

Computer screen and people looking at big data

Concerns over privacy and security.

As previously mentioned, there are any number of concerns from consumers as to how entities collecting their data are using that information. It is always in the best interest of businesses and other organizations to use their customer data carefully.


Big data requires the storage of large data sets, many of which contain consumer’s private information. In the event of a data breach, massive amounts of private consumer information can end up in the wrong hands. For example, the Equifax security breach of 2017 caused many issues and made many users information available to those who wanted to use it for their own gain.

With concerns over potential security breaches, it’s up to organizations to work with cybersecurity professionals to protect consumer information from hackers.


Consumers are generally suspicious of the ability of big data holders (social networks, government, businesses, organizations, etc.) to protect their privacy. This is especially true of social media sites, which collect a lot of data. Even in cases where there is no security breach, there is often a lack of transparency about what consumer data is being collected, who it is being shared with, and what it will be used for. Organizations are working to ensure that consumers always have access to the information about their data collection and privacy issues in real-time.

Businesses, government, social media, and other industries will help their relationships with their customers by being more transparent with the ways in which collected customer data is used.

How you can get involved in big data.

One of the best ways to get involved in data security and privacy is an IT degree. WGU offers security and analytics degrees that can help you get right into the field of big data, and help move things forward in your career. If the fields of big data interest you, and you want to get involved in helping establish security, get started on an IT degree today.

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