Big data. You hear it everywhere -- but what does it mean? Well, it means what it sounds like. It’s a term used to describe any gigantic chunk of information which can be used as useful information.

It is often characterized by three ‘v’s: volume, variety, and velocity. Volume refers to the amount of data, variety refers to the number of different types of data, and velocity refers to the speed at which it is processed.

While there’s no specific quantity that describes big, it’s usually in terabytes, petabytes, or exabytes -- or one quintillion (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000!) bytes of information.

It comes from a variety of sources, too. Social media, business records, sensors in the internet of things, and separate software and analytics tools. It is also in a bunch of different database stores, especially in web browsing and online shopping.

As big data expands into AI and machine learning, velocity is especially useful in terms of the speed that algorithms can ingest, correlate, and analyze data sources.

What does this mean? It means human big data analysts need to understand what they are looking for before they begin mining quintillions of bytes of information.

Using big data effectively requires intensive human understanding and tools to mine it. It is also effective for more than just business.

How can big data help us improve the world in which we live? Let’s take a closer look at four ways, and a place to learn.

Urban planning

No, it’s not science fiction, although it feels like it. Sensors to tell you when the trash is full. Sensors for pollution. Sensors for parking re-direction.

Sustainable urban planning is becoming more and more complicated with multiple systems competing for resources -- utilities, energy, housing, transportation, and infrastructure to name but a few. There are massive quantities of data about cities and their residents and how they use their space. This means urban planners need to be adept at using big data.

Many cities are using big data from the Internet of Things (IoT) to convert their municipalities into smart cities. For example, London uses big data to help manage waste, reduce costs, and improve the quality of living and working in large cities.

Using big data in urban planning also helps with parking problems, pollution, and energy consumption.

As with everything, there is a human cost: as smart cities rely heavily on big data to thrive, they also call into question residents’ confidentiality. Urban planners continue to work on it.

Protecting the environment

Big data can help save the planet.

Deforestation, a hot-button issue, removes life-sustaining trees and habitats for other plant and animal species. Big data offers alternative solutions to tree cutting so that we can lower our carbon footprint.

How? Satellite images, high-tech data processing, and crowd-sourcing can provide almost real-time data on the world’s forests. That’s right: creating big data maps of the world’s forests.

Big data also offers the opportunity to protect endangered species and mitigate poaching. Tools like the Recovery Explorer combined with satellite images give conservationists an edge when looking at species at the macro level so that they can help preserve them on the micro level.

Public health

Big data allows scientists to unravel entire DNA sequences in minutes. This means increased ability to predict patterns in diseases and mutations.

Data from smart watches and wearable devices increases the amount of data health experts can collect.

Some hospitals are already using big data techniques to monitor premature and sick babies by analyzing every heartbeat and breathing pattern of every baby. Scientists can now develop algorithms that can help predict infections based on that data -- hours before physical symptoms appear.

Poverty reduction

For organizations like Unicef, big data is key to their success. They can deliver immunizations, healthcare, and water to some of the world’s poorest populations by analyzing big data.

Organizations like Unicef and public institutions and NGOs alike can collect data by studying mobile phone maps, which create big gaps in poor areas, satellite imagery, biometric data, and the IoT.

Where can you learn to improve the world with big data?

At the Netherlands’ internationally renowned research university, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam!

Its Master program in societal resilience is a Research Master for students of big data looking for global solutions to broad social issues. Multi-disciplinary and multi-methodological in its approach, the program requires its students to select two of four research themes: diversity and inclusive communities, dynamics of interconnectedness, care and welfare, and governance reform.

Students work with a diverse group of colleagues and international professors from around the world to develop a research proposal that involves the analysis of both big and small data as it relates to their research theme.

Situated in scenic, canal-filled Amsterdam, the program also offers students a rich culture and the opportunity to work with a variety of international companies and research institutes solving ethical and social dilemmas.

If you are open-minded, care about social issues and data analysis, and want to immerse yourself in research, the program is a perfect fit.

Interested? For a 1 September start date next year, non-EU students must apply by 1 April and EU students by 1 June.