Editor’s Note: The future of data is in the analytics

There’s been a change in the conversation about big data and cloud computing over the past year or so.

It used to be much of the discussion centered on just understanding the concepts and figuring out how they might apply to a business.

Now, it seems, industries big and small are taking that knowledge and weaving the technologies into their business practices. As a result, we are beginning to see glimmers of where all this might lead.

One place this shift can be seen most clearly is health care. Perhaps you already receive care from a practice that is replacing those cabinets filled with paper case files with bits and bytes held in some Internet repository, where the information can be shared by doctors and other practitioners.

It wasn’t so long ago that I stopped by one of those 24-hour urgent care centers to deal with a bout of pink eye. I marveled at how my vital signs were logged by a nurse and delivered instantly to my doctor’s iPad. At the end of his exam and consultation, he tapped out a prescription, which was sent instantly to my neighborhood pharmacy. I paid with the swipe of a credit card. I never touched a piece of paper.

The benefits, and potential perils to privacy, of this sudden availability of human data are obvious. But that’s just the start.

The more fascinating questions are beginning to be addressed now. What if you could compare my health record to hundreds, thousands or millions of others? What insights might we glean? What mistakes might we avoid?

Could a computer suggest diagnoses? What kind of algorithms would we need?

There are plenty of companies working on just those sorts of problems right now, racing to be the default analytics engine. It is one of the reasons why IBM, the subject of our cover story this week, has created an entire division around its data-crunching Watson computer.

And it is also why we produced this week’s special report, because the work is so pervasive now across industries.

The future is not about the data anymore; it’s about the analytics.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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