When I first became a marketer over twelve years ago, we didn't have access to the sheer amount of data we have now and looking back, it was very nerve racking. In those days, I'd constantly be visited (in person) by sales representatives from magazines or TV stations that would pitch me on advertising with them. Even if the campaign sounded good, it would all got kind of hazy when we got to the audience demographics part. They'd show me pie charts and claim to have millions of viewers, but there was no way to really tell if that was accurate.

Today, one quick Google search will tell you exactly what you need to know to corroborate a story. That data there for the public to see (thank goodness).

It's safe to say that marketers everywhere are experiencing far less stress since big data arrived on the scene. Now in 2017, there are almost 260 million smartphone users in the United States who are, of course, uploading information via apps, entering personal details and storing preferences - which of course helps marketers do their jobs a million times better. And many associate big data directly with marketing, which is not the case.

Yes, we're certainly aware of how businesses use our digital information to maximize sales efforts, but equally interesting is the way healthcare businesses (for example) are using big data to improve quality of life.

Take Fitbit for instance. Prior to receiving one as a gift, I thought I was an active person because I go to the gym five times a week. After wearing it for two average weekdays, I realized I wasn't as active as I thought I was; in fact, I was struggling to make the average "step" goal of 10,000! After reviewing the data, I realized that though I go to the gym more than most people, I sat most of the day and was probably less active than my elderly grandma. Ah data. It doesn't lie.

But that is a small example compared to what healthcare entrepreneurs are doing with data. Take a look:

Preventing Illnesses

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Big Data in 2017 is the fact that vital information is being used to predict health-related trends and prevent illnesses. Volumes of data are no longer siloed in archives of administrative departments or clinics, which allows for predictive modeling based on past outcomes. Doctors can assess the likely results of a treatment plan or diagnosis and help prevent illnesses before they develop.

Doctors can compare results and outcomes of millions of patients with the same condition and lifestyle as their own patients; they can look for early signs based on specific indicators and symptoms and provide preventative care rather than look for cures.

The telehealth industry (which is set to reach 9.21 billion in US revenue by 2021) is putting big data to good use. Grand Rounds, for example, is a company that uses Big Data to unite patients with physicians in the early stages, sometimes even before patients get sick. In 2016 alone, they saw 15 percent lower hospital re-admittance rates, a 66 percent change in diagnosis or treatment plan and 20-25 percent fewer complications.

Mobile Mapping

Every day more apps are appearing that allow us to improve our lifestyles and most smartphones now come with a built-in health app. You can turn your phone into a calorie counter, pedometer, or place to store your medical data.

This information can be shared with physicians and medical research centers to use as part of a diagnosis, or something even larger. Big Data can predict the growth trajectory of epidemics, such as Ebola, and help avoid preventable deaths.

Flowminder Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public health and welfare in low-income countries. Working with governments and NGOs, they use Big Data from mobile operators, satellites and household survey data. They provide mobile mapping of population movements that are fundamental in preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

Even in the poorest countries in Africa, Big Data still applies. Mobile phones are widely owned and working with datasets in this way can help save lives through analyses and prevention.

Future Innovations

Big Data will continue to change the face of basically every industry as we know it and healthcare is no exception. Because of these technology innovations, medical professionals will be able to prevent illnesses, control the outbreak of epidemics and reducing the cost of treatment, while improving quality; instead of having to visit several doctors for the right diagnosis, patients will be intelligently connected to the right providers. Employers can curb healthcare costs while enhancing medical care for their staff.

Looking further into the future, Big Data will almost certainly be instrumental in finding a cure for cancer, according to experts. By being able to break down and analyze previously non-quantifiable amounts of data, scientists will get closer to understanding the causes of cancer and detecting methods to eradicate it.
So, the next time you see a re-marketing advert on your screen for electronic deals, or un-missable offers in clothing, spare a thought for the other ways big data can be used: the important ones that serve to prolong and save lives around the world.

Published on: Jan 19, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.