The big deal about big data

By Nick Alexopulos, '03  |  Flickr/luckey_sun

Flickr Creative Commons/luckey_sun

Whether you know it or not, there’s a good chance a significant chunk of your activity online is contributing to what is affectionately known as ‘big data.’

But what is big data, and how are companies, governments, and other organizations managing it and extracting its value?

Jason Barbour will explore these questions in a special topics course he’s teaching this fall for students in Loyola University Maryland’s graduate programs in computer science and software engineering. Barbour is a software engineer with expertise in developing analytics for large data sets, and he’s currently working on big data analytics using MapReduce, Pig, and Accumulo for Varen Technologies in Columbia, Md.

Loyola magazine asked Barbour to offer a preview of the course and explain, in non-tech terms, what big data is.

What’s big data and why’s it a big deal?

Big data has been defined in many different terms, but my favorite definition is that big data is when the size of the data becomes part of the problem. Big data is really just one piece of the bigger data analysis puzzle. The big deal is that a lot of value is being extracted from all the data being collected.

What should students expect from this course?

The course is a special topics course on big data, but we will be touching various topics ranging from big data storage to large-scale machine learning libraries. I really want this course to be informative but practical. Students should leave the class understanding the big data mindset and gain experience with the most prevalent tools such as MapReduce, Pig, Hive, and HBase.

Why is it important for computer science graduate students to learn about big data?

I think it is more important that students learn about the entire field of data analysis, which includes big data. Understanding how to work with data that is both small and big is what is most important. More and more industries are using big data techniques to extract value from their data.

What’s happening with big data in the real world?

In all industries big data is making changes. Some of the best examples are all the recommendation systems out there like Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook. Social network analysis at scale has become a big field. In government, there are vast amounts of data being analyzed for cybersecurity and intelligence purposes.

Where does big data go from here?

The tools to deal with big data are constantly evolving and becoming easier to use. There are many companies that are developing products that simplify the process of working with and understanding vast amounts of data. There continues to be a push into more real-time analysis of streaming data, so tools such as Storm and Spark are becoming increasingly popular.

We hear you organize a Meetup that’s quite popular …

In December 2012, a coworker and I started Data Science MD to help build a community for those interested in the various areas of data science. We are very inclusive and try to talk about any topic that relates to data, so discussions on big data are pretty common. In less than a year we have grown to more than 700 members and have held multiple events in Baltimore, Howard County, and Montgomery County.

CS 750: Big Data will be offered at the Loyola Graduate Center – Columbia Campus on Mondays from 5:30 p.m. to 7:40 p.m. It runs from Sept. 9 through Dec. 12. For more information contact Lewis Berman (410) 617-2587 or

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