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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Big Data's Power Lies in Profiling

“Big data” is one of the hot buzzwords circling the business, technology, and education sectors these days. It’s not really a new concept—the smart players have been collecting and crunching numbers and data points all along—but system enhancements are making it possible to gather more data than before and more people are becoming aware of the power of data analysis.

In his Thought Leader educational session at the Campus Market Expo (CAMEX) 2013 in Kansas City, MO, Michael Wesch offered an anecdote that illustrates that power. He is the associate professor of cultural anthropology, Coffman Chair for Distinguished Teaching Scholars, Kansas State University, Manhattan, and U.S. Professor of the Year.

Wesch told the audience that a colleague became incensed when Target sent his 15-year-old daughter a mailer touting pregnancy and baby products. The colleague complained at the local store. A few days later, he returned to apologize. “It turns out Target knew the daughter was pregnant before he did,” Wesch explained.

Target didn’t actually know that, but had surmised the situation when the daughter bought two particular products at the same time. Purchased separately, the products meant nothing. But purchased together, according to Target’s data profiling, indicated there was a high probability the consumer was expecting. The dual purchase automatically triggered Target’s targeted mailer.

The anecdote shows that big data involves more than simply counting up consumer actions. The real value is in correlating data to create a profile of future actions.

In the education world, Wesch noted, software developers are trying to build similar profiles of student learning behaviors. He cited a couple of examples: Learning management systems, such as Blackboard, are exploring the huge potential in the big data they collect on users. The Knewton adaptive learning platform employs data analysis to guide learners through progressive levels of questions.

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