Eighteen months ago, Li & Fung, a firm that manages supply chains for retailers, saw 100 gigabytes of information flow through its network each day. Now the amount has increased tenfold. During 2009, American drone aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan sent back around 24 years’ worth of video footage. New models being deployed this year will produce ten times as many data streams as their predecessors, and those in 2011 will produce 30 times as many.
Everywhere you look, the quantity of information in the world is soaring. According to one estimate, mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1,200 exabytes. Merely keeping up with this flood, and storing the bits that might be useful, is difficult enough. Analysing it, to spot patterns and extract useful information, is harder still. Even so, the data deluge is already starting to transform business, government, science and everyday life (see our special report in this issue). It has great potential for good””as long as consumers, companies and governments make the right choices about when to restrict the flow of data, and when to encourage it.