Rethinking Big Data

Every couple of years, the business world seems to take a buzzword and proceed to run it into the ground until said word becomes mocked universally. Does anyone remember “synergy”, “logistics”, or “the cloud”? These words/phrases aren’t necessarily bad. When used appropriately, they help to provide a short concise description of a larger concept. But, when used incorrectly or too much, it waters down the original meaning. I’m starting to see this pattern happen with “big data”. You hear individuals and businesses constantly using this phrase, but what does it even mean?

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Some see big data as just having a ton of data points on an individual or group. Others see it as the process of collecting every bit of information on your customer. But, I think like anything else, you should ask yourself, “how does this help me achieve my business/personal goals?” I think it’s worth taking a step back and understanding what “big data” even means. The International Journal of Internet Science describes big data this way, “Big Data usually includes data sets with sizes beyond the ability of commonly used software tools to capture, curate, manage, and process the data within a tolerable elapsed time.” Ok, now we’re getting somewhere.

To put it even more simply, big data is used to describe the process of collecting a large amount of seemingly unrelated data points, finding a relationship between these data points, and using the relationship to come up with a solution to a problem or to devise a strategy. That’s why I find it confusing when I see companies or organizations collecting data points without a defined objective. I compare it to collecting bricks when you don’t even know how to build a house. Like anything in life, progress requires that you have an objective before you begin a journey or a project. When you’re collecting a lot of data, you should know exactly what you’re going to use it for and why it will be helpful. How else will you be able to tell if you’re wasting your time or not?

The good news is that big data is (luckily) not rocket science. The Information Age has led to us being able to collect a lot of data that when used properly can make our lives more convenient. Google is an example of how data can help achieve desirable outcomes that make life easier. But before you throw that phrase around, it might be helpful to know what you’re using the data for and how to interpret it. Otherwise, it’ll share the same fate as the drum set you asked for from Santa-barely used and taking up way too much space.
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