A friend recently shared this image on Facebook. The image which appeared to have quite a few shares is meant to imply that Wal-Mart is aware enough to know that Beer Pong enthusiasts will be buying lots of ping pong balls to go with their red Silo cups (wait, where are the kegs, Wal-Mart?). The truth is Wal-Mart probably has know idea why people who by red Silo cups at their store also buy ping pongs. The do know that it happens though because Big Data analysis tells them so. So what does Wal-Mart do in response? They put the two oft purchased items together to increase the sales. They assume that many people want to buy these items together and so by placing them together they will increase sales.
What I love about this example, is it is a good use of Big Data which doesn’t necessarily implicate privacy issues. They don’t need to track individual purchases or purchasers, they only need to know that there is a correlation between cups and balls. They don’t need to pry into people’s lives as to why they purchase these together, but simply that they do. However, some risk remains if Big Data turns into Big Brother. If they did make the connection, could they require ID of purchases ping pong balls along with Silo cups? Sorry you must be 21 to purchase these items together.
Maybe in retrospect Wal-Mart does know what is up (the correlation of purchases) but not why (causation). For more information on Big Data, I suggest the Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier book of the same name.