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Cover Stories Series 2015> Against Fake Goods> Archives
UPDATED: September 23, 2014 NO. 26 JUNE 26, 2014
The Dawn of Big Data
Technology is transforming the lives of ordinary people
By Tang Yuankai

ARE YOU NORMAL?: A scene at the variety show Are You Normal? on May 19. The show uses big data to evaluate whether contestants' answers to questions about a behavior or thought are popularly accepted or not (CFP)

Recently, a female student in Shanghai-based East China Normal University received a text message from a faculty member, which said, "Last month, you spent less on meals. Are you in financial difficulty? If so, please contact me via phone, text message or e-mail."

The student posted the screenshot of the message on her micro-blog. She said that her meal card spending dropped because she was on a diet. Nonetheless, she was touched by the school's care for her.

This "misunderstanding" could not have existed if not for big data. The East China Normal University has developed a data mining system to automatically track students' meal card spending. If a student's spending falls under a certain level, a designated faculty member will send the student a short message to check whether he or she is having a hard time financially.

In response to concerns about whether this constitutes an invasion of privacy, the school said that the system is an internal work system, and all data are kept confidential and will not be leaked. Furthermore, communication with students is anonymous, so even the faculty member sending a message does not know the identity of the student they are contacting.

Data boom

Many people, much like the dieting student, have not realized that big data, an emerging popular technology, is already very close to them. To promote people's understanding of big data, the China Association of Science and Technology hosted a seminar on December 25, 2013, during which five scientists introduced the big-data technology and its application in daily life to reporters.

The phrase "big data" first appeared in a central government work report during China's annual legislative session this March, suggesting that the state leadership has realized its importance.

"From Silicon Valley to Beijing, big data has been a much-talked about topic. With smart phones and portable computing devices, any change in our behaviors, locations and biological data becomes data that can be recorded and analyzed," said Tian Suning, Chairman of the China Broadband Capital Partners, a private equity firm focusing on media and communications investment.

Tian is a reputed advocate of China's cloud computing and big-data technology. He strongly recommends Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, a pioneering book authored by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, a professor at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute who predicted the dawning of the big-data era. Tian wrote the preface to the book's Chinese edition, in which he said that the era of mass production, sharing and application of data has arrived.

"After the birth of social media, big data inevitably arrived," said Xu Zipei, an information management expert and Vice Chairman of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, USA. Last October, Xu won a prize in China for his contribution to research on big data.

"Social media has revolutionized human society. After its inception, netizens all over the world began to contribute data. This special kind of information can be called unstructured data,'" Xu said.

Even though social media has been around only a little more than eight years, yet the amount of unstructured data generated by it have already accounts for 75 percent of all data in the world, according to Xu.


Are you Normal?, which has been streamed on the Internet weekly since April 10, is China's first variety show to be produced using the big-data technology.

The show is produced by Tencent, one of China's largest Internet service providers, in cooperation with Vivid Media (Shanghai) Co. Ltd., a leading integrated all-media operator in the country.

As expected by its producer, the program has caused a big stir. On the first day it was released online, the show attracted 34.6 million views. The first three episodes generated more than 112 million clicks in the first month.

On its surface, the show is not much more than a combination of a talk show, a reality show and a quiz show. Ordinary people from all walks of life are invited to answer questions. After answering a question correctly, they win a prize. If a person answers all questions correctly, he or she can get a reward totaling 100,000 yuan ($16,000). Every episode, a celebrity is invited to advise the contestant.

What really makes the program stand out, however, is its usage of big data to generate questions and answers for the show.

In every episode, a contestant is asked eight questions about whether a behavior or thought—such as marrying without owning a house or sleeping naked—is normal.

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