Big Data—Big Deal?

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Tired of the hype surrounding big data? I am. You should be too. Don’t let the hype fool you. It isn’t as impressive as it sounds. Here’s why:

It’s only demographics on steroids.

Remember demographics? That data that categorized someone by their sex, age, race, location, economic status. That’s a big part of what big data is: demographics on steroids. Just think of it as a better way to categorize humans into increasingly smaller and smaller groups until the smallest unit of measure is one. One human who is unique but has been completely datafied to the point where there isn’t anything left about them that a company would want to know that they couldn’t look up in their database (and for some of us not even a very big database).

The facts of life.

Even I, helping companies use data nearly every day of my life, am occasionally still amazed by the extent to which we’ve been datafied. It isn’t just that every step we take is recorded and correlated to everything around us in the physical world, or that even the slightest mouse is recorded in the big data store of one website provide or another, but that it can also now define and categorize things that once seemed indefinable in tightly quantified ways: our propensity towards organization or chaos, our aversion or need for structure, our emotional stability or lack thereof. Technologies new ability to datafy us is impressive. But at the end of the day all of these things are derived from binary actions or decisions. And that makes big data something rather simple: the facts of your life. A VERY detailed journal of every single thing you did, who and what you interacted with and the choice you made at every one of those small crossroads.

Don’t you bet on it.

Despite what people will try to convince you, big data never shows causality. The one thing big data can’t explain is why—we can only infer why someone did what they did, or why a group did what it did. Big data captures the response to stimulus. And it can’t even always explain which stimulus prompted the reaction—although it does an amazingly impressive job of explaining what combinations of stimuli create a given result with what exact frequency. You might be able to bet on it because it is more accurate than any statistical analysis but at the end of the day the humans still have to explain why—or try to.

Big but…

Big data (at least in a strict sense) has no ability to show the true value of something. It can explain who a consumer is, and what that consumer did, but it cannot explain what the value of that consumer or their actions are. That all important question is still answered by the (relatively) small, decades old, traditional data contained within enterprise applications—or more accurately the information derived from these applications by their business intelligence and analytics brethren. What to know what that customer is worth? Sorry, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Why demystify and even denigrate big data in this way—even though I often reinforce that it has fundamentally changed the way businesses define, understand and interact with consumers? Because the confusion surrounding what big data actually is prevents those who need to understand it, in order to put it to good use, from seeing it as a simple reflection of who each of us is, what we do, where, when and sometimes how. This allows us to move past what it is and consider what it is good for. Big data itself is fairly worthless (like all data). But the Information that can be derived from it—now that’s big, and impressive, and very powerful—when used the right way.

Join us for a live webinar presentation with David tomorrow, Thursday, February 19, at 10AM PST/1PM PST to learn more about this topic. Register now.

About the author: David F. Giannetto (@dgiannetto) is the author of Big Social Mobile, How Digital Initiatives Can Reshape the Enterprise and Drive Business Results (Palgrave Macmillan), and senior vice president of Salient Management Company. He helps organizations coordinate complex initiatives, technology and information to create tangible results. More information at: www.BigSocialMobile.com.