Just Stop with the ‘Big Data is Just’

Posted on August 26, 2012


OK, I get it. You’re sceptical. You’ve seen stuff come and you’ve seen it go. To you big data is just BI, just data, just analytics for the hip kids, just a distraction or just hype and fad.

Except it isn’t. Big data is only ‘just’ analytics in the same way that cloud is ‘just’ asp or bureau. That is to say it isn’t at all.

It ‘aint hadoop either

Others define it in terms of the technology. I get this too. New tech is making it all possible and existing databases have been a barrier. New approaches like hadoop were borrowed from those that pioneered extracting value from enormous volumes of data. To the traditional data vendors, a terabyte was a big deal. They failed to notice that this was becoming standard in a home pc and that insurgent innovators were capturing, processing and mining mountains of data. They  didn’t keep up, so others had their lunch money and now they are playing catch-up.

But it would be wrong to define big data in terms of the innovation that allows it to happen. A little like defining fine dining as an activity conducted with knives, forks and a high quality napkin. It would be the most common mistake of the Big Data muggle.

The end of transaction oriented business

So if it’s not just ‘just’ and it’s not the technology … what is it?

It’s nothing less than a profound change in our approach to data. Historically, businesses managed themselves as a series of transactions. Occasional snapshots if you will. Only the essential financial and operational interactions between them and their customers. A quotation, an order, a despatch note and most importantly an invoice. Early on-line commerce  began to change this. Every gesture a customer made on their shopping journey could be captured. An abandoned basket in a supermarket tells the store manager nothing. Online, the same shopping cart could tell us that the delivery times are too long, the accessories were out of stock or that the secure shopping statement was in the wrong place. For the first time, so much data was being generated that ‘traditional’ analytics started to creak and groan and most of this type of analysis took place outside of corporate BI. It was ‘special’ click stream, needed specialised tools and the BI specialist and vendor shook their heads at it’s lack of structure. Where were the columns, rows and indexes.

This was just the beginning. Social platforms don’t just allow the analysis of shopping behaviours but all behaviours. If a customer comments, complains, compliments or converses in general about you or your brand, it is possible to know. It’s no longer heresay or anecdote, it’s available from the blogsphere or the Twitter firehose. It’s data.

Another beginning

Actually, that was just the beginning of the beginning. New classes of devices that can generate more data than the most active surfer or shopper are boosting the on-line population. Forget smart meters and the internet fridge, at least for now. Think more about ultra-low cost devices that remind you to water the yukka, feed the guppy or take your medication. If you forget any of these, particularly the medication, they will probably tell others too. Connected asthma inhalers can provide insight into air quality and cars that connect with your insurers who adjust your insurance premiums because your acceleration and braking patterns suggest that you are driving like you are on a track day rather than on the hanger lane gyratory. Oh and my new pebble watch (when it arrives) will add to the billions of facts, snippets and streams being added to that one big database in the sky. The cloud.

Ambient Data and why Big Data is Big

Big data represents a profound change. In our book Decision Sourcing, Gower, 2013, we refer to it as ‘ambient’ rather than big data. Ambient because we have always been surrounded by our thoughts, gestures, actions and conversations but they have never been data before. They were lost (as Rutger said) ‘like tears in rain’.

Today, we are approaching an an age where it is possible and practical to know everything that there is to know. Everything that is (to use an arcane legal expression) ‘uttered and muttered’. That’s what makes it big. Really big. Teradata think a Tera is big but it’s just a walk to the shops compared to Big Data.

Oh no  it is not ‘just’ anything. It is the beginning of the most significant shift in our industry since it began. The complexities are many, the data as varied as it is voluminous but the prize is knowledge and insight much of it predictive. Indeed, everything we have done to this point has been in preparation for the age of Big Data.

If Big Data is just anything right now … it’s just the beginning.