Online retailers use it to make recommendations to customers.
Banks use it to determine who is a good risk for a loan and what their interest rate should be.
Now Columbia Basin College wants to use the sea of information available about current and prospective students, from the courses they select to the pages they "like" on Facebook, to learn more about them.
College officials said the task won't be easy, as it means searching out and harnessing endless amounts of information.
But that information, being called "big data," could hold the key to improving student achievement and retention. CBC President Rich Cummins said the information could even be used to help individualize help for students with homework questions.
Cummins told the college's board of trustees recently that CBC students generate immeasurable amounts of data every day.
That data includes records tracked by the college on classes and grades; older archived information, such as logs showing which students sought tutoring help and massive amounts of information generated by students on social networks, specifically Facebook, where students often list their preferences on issues ranging from what they like to do in their spare time to what issues they follow.
Cummins said using these statistics, facts and preferences about students could go a long way toward understanding what teaching methods they respond to, what subjects they're interested in and what services they need.
Unfortunately, CBC isn't prepared to take on this task yet. The data is scattered across various servers, networks and other storage locations that aren't connected.
"We know our data, but we don't know it as well as we should," Cummins said.
The computer system used by Washington's community and technical colleges also is outdated and not capable of connecting all the information and making it easily accessible to college officials, Cummins said.
So, to start, the college is meeting with a data management company about possible next steps.
Some administrators also will attend conferences and training on reviewing such large amounts of information and how to put it to use, and college staff will conduct an inventory of all the data they have access to.
College officials said the task won't be easy, and Cummins said the college's current goals will take more than a year to accomplish. However, if companies can use big data to serve customers and improve the bottom line, college officials said it could just as well serve students and the community at-large.
"What if big data could similarly be used by CBC to lift people out of cycles of under-education and un- or underemployment?" Joe Montgomery, CBC's dean for institutional effectiveness, said in an email.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver