New Ways to Exploit Raw Data May Bring Surge of Innovation

Math majors, rejoice. Businesses are going to need tens of thousands of you in the coming years as companies grapple with a growing mountain of data.

Data is a vital raw material of the information economy, much as coal and iron ore were in the Industrial Revolution. But the business world is just beginning to learn how to process it all.

The current data surge is coming from sophisticated computer tracking of shipments, sales, suppliers and customers, as well as e-mail, Web traffic and social network comments. The quantity of business data doubles every 1.2 years, by one estimate.

Mining and analyzing these big new data sets can open the door to a new wave of innovation, accelerating productivity and economic growth. Some economists, academics and business executives see an opportunity to move beyond the payoff of the first stage of the Internet, which combined computing and low-cost communications to automate all kinds of commercial transactions.

The next stage, they say, will exploit Internet-scale data sets to discover new businesses and predict consumer behavior and market shifts.

Others are skeptical of the “big data” thesis. They see limited potential beyond a few marquee examples, like Google in Internet search and online advertising.

The McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, is coming down on the side of the optimists in a lengthy study to be published on Friday. The report, based on nine months of work is “Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition and Productivity.” It makes estimates of the potential benefits from deploying data-harvesting technologies and skills.

The McKinsey research unit, for example, says the value to the health care system in the United States could be $300 billion a year, and that American retailers could increase their operating profit margins by 60 percent.

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