So long, big data. Thanks for coming.

So long big data, thanks for coming - image for article by Greg Alder

Big data is in the limelight. Big data is making some seriously big noise. But really, does big data deserve its star treatment?

Information research company Gartner defines big data as “high volume, high velocity, and/or high variety information assets that require new forms of processing to enable enhanced decision making, insight discovery and process optimization.”

Data is a bunch of facts. That’s a fact. Big data is a really big bunch of facts. A massive amount, in fact. Because of its size and nature, very sophisticated tools are needed to process big data.

Seeing trends or links or cause and effect in these facts can be helpful to economists, town planners or any organisation that needs to forecast impact or predict the future.

Big data’s biggest fans will argue that it enables insight into behaviour. It doesn’t. Big data can reveal the effect – what people have done. It can’t reveal the cause – the reasons they did it. That’s an insight.

Big data is incapable of helping me understand the anxiety, ambition, greed, passion, hatred, ambivalence, revenge, compassion or any other emotion that precedes and prompts an action.

Big organisations will spend big money mining big data. At the end of the day they’ll be no closer to understanding their customer, voter, patient, passenger or resident. All they’ll have is an indication of a collective behaviour, a group litmus test or a median score.

Mix every colour and you’ll end up with dirty grey. Combine the features of a thousand acquaintances and you’ll get an average person of average height, average weight, average nose shape, skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, lip size and ear size. Someone who looks like no-one you know.

Dig deeper into big data and you’ll get the average time they spend watching TV, having sex, working, eating and sleeping. You’ll get their average IQ, their average level of education, their average sporting skill … and on it goes.

You’ll have all this wonderful data – and you won’t know a single thing about any single person.

You won’t know their hot buttons. You won’t be able to engage them emotionally in your cause or your brand.

People don’t engage with big data. People engage with brands that demonstrate they understand them, not as a group, but as an individual.

People engage with stories. Data’s role is to support stories. Until your story has got my attention, your data is meaningless.

I want the opposite of big data. I want the tiny, potent insight. I want the single gem buried in tonnes of clay.

Big data, your size is mightily impressive. But really, you have nothing I need or want.

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  1. says: Andy

    Thank you Greg for your usual high quality, insightful comments and I agree.
    Big data is not dissimilar to statistics and research; the key elements to have impact is not what you reveal but what you leave out and what you link the subject matter to and associate it with indirectly – some politicians are masters of the art.
    The devil is always in the detail not big data.

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