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Big Data: Longing for Affection, Still Sexy, and Dead as a Doornail

Over the last year or so:

  • A number of articles have already declared the death of Big Data.
  • A question was posed on a site frequented by data science professionals whether businesses should embrace Big Data.
  • A meme was immortalized: “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it” (Credit Dan Ariely of Duke University). Data science, whatever it means, continues to be one of the hottest professions.

​While some have already written the eulogy for Big Data, others still struggle to grasp what it is. Many of the definitions are more conceptual than tangible, perhaps leading to equating Big Data with certain sets of technology items if only to put some boundaries around the Big Data concept. And perhaps it is this lack of tangibility that lends Big Data to be concurrently huggable, sexy, and dead.

The human nature likes things to be tangible. If we recall the introductory statistics course that everyone had to take, a sample size of 30 made it large, and a p-value of 0.05 made the results statistically significant; hopefully it has been pointed out that nothing magical happens at these thresholds. It is also important to remember that Big Data is not always unstructured, and structured data is not always small—the size and the form are two different things. That said, the size of data does eventually imply tangible technology impact, which is easier to talk about.

What about the business impact? Business problems don’t care how big the data is that solves them. Data of any size is no good until someone makes some sense out of it and uses it to effect a positive change in the business. “Doing” Big Data does not directly lead to solved business problems, yet so much of the focus is still on the size and the form and less on why “doing it” is essential in the first place. The successes come from the ability to leverage the right data to solve a business problem and effect change; starting with the size or form of the data and not with the business problem is the proverbial hammer looking for a nail to hit.

So perhaps the question is whether businesses should embrace a data-driven culture. Most people would probably answer yes. Now the difficult part—this means that it is a shift in business culture. Along with this culture comes the realization that size does not matter and that it’s what you do with it that counts.​