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  • Miguel Angel Fernandez

The Promises and Limitations of Big Data

Updated: Dec 19, 2019

Recent stories chart the rise of big data, its impact on business, and how it affects our lives every day.

Although many people claim we have entered the era of big data, research firms tell us that most collected information is never used. It sits uncleaned, unanalyzed, unused in databases. 

But when data analytics is used successfully, organizations reap the benefits. Financial services firms are using digital information about their customers to offer them a whole new range of customized products under the category of fintech. Cities are using data from Google Street View to guide economic development. And companies are finding that in some cases machines can make better hiring decisions than humans.

In these stories from our recent archives, Harvard Business School researchers outline the promises of big data—and the limitations of trying to harness data from a firehose.

The Civic Benefits of Google Street View and Yelp

Cities are increasingly rich in citizen-created data, which can be used to improve programs and services, according to Michael Luca and his research colleagues.

Why Millennials Flock to Fintech for Personal Investing

New tech-heavy financial firms are helping millennials invest, but with a twist. They are swapping out investment advisers for financial robots, and passing along the savings to their customers. Luis Viceira explains the rise of "fintech" in a new case study.

Man vs. Machine: Which Makes Better Hires?

Danielle Li and colleagues find that computers make better hiring decisions than managers when filling simpler jobs.

How Will the Age of Big Data Affect Management?

How do we avoid losing useful knowledge in a seemingly endless flood of data? Jim Heskett's readers offer some wise suggestions.

Consumer-centered Health Care Depends on Accessible Medical Records

There is a problem with medical records—they are scattered everywhere. John Quelchdiscusses approaches to integrate patient data so that medical professionals and patients can make better decisions.

Related Research Papers

How the Water Industry Learned to Embrace Data

Most current talk about “big data” seems to assume the disintermediation or replacement of physical assets by digital technologies. But a bigger and more impactful trend, according to researchers Frank V. Cespedes and Amir Peleg, is the use of online tools to improve physical asset utilization in many traditional off-line businesses. This article from Harvard Business Review discusses the water industry as an example, and the organizational changes and levers relevant to extracting value from emerging data-analytics technologies.

Big Data: Big Deal or Big Hype?

Google's announcement in 2008 that it could track the prevalence of flu by analyzing people's searches heralded a new age where it was possible to allow data to speak for itself, without theory or expert knowledge of the subject matter. However, in a short span the pendulum swung from big data being a big deal to becoming a big hype. As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere between these two extremes. This article by Professor Sunil Gupta in the European Business Review highlights the potential impact of big data on business practices in three broad areas: applications, methods, and infrastructure.