The Age of Big Data

emerging-market-startups-bigdataGOOD with numbers? Fascinated by data? The sound you hear is opportunity knocking.

Mo Zhou was snapped up by I.B.M. last summer, as a freshly minted Yale M.B.A., to join the technology company’s fast-growing ranks of data consultants. They help businesses make sense of an explosion of data — Web traffic and social network comments, as well as software and sensors that monitor shipments, suppliers and customers — to guide decisions, trim costs and lift sales. “I’ve always had a love of numbers,” says Ms. Zhou, whose job as a data analyst suits her skills.

To exploit the data flood, America will need many more like her. A report last year by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, projected that the United States needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with “deep analytical” expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired.

The impact of data abundance extends well beyond business. Justin Grimmer, for example, is one of the new breed of political scientists. A 28-year-old assistant professor at Stanford, he combined math with political science in his undergraduate and graduate studies, seeing “an opportunity because the discipline is becoming increasingly data-intensive.” His research involves the computer-automated analysis of blog postings, Congressional speeches and press releases, and news articles, looking for insights into how political ideas spread.

The story is similar in fields as varied as science and sports, advertising and public health — a drift toward data-driven discovery and decision-making. “It’s a revolution,” says Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “We’re really just getting under way. But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

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