Big data – is this really what we want?

If you think of the other places where Big is used to describe an industry, it’s not generally used to by people who like the industry in question. Big Pharma. Big Agriculture, Big Other things We’d Like To Scare You About.

But the data industry insists on talking about big data as a thing that it’s pushing as the next big thing without considering that equally, there are a lot of people pushing back against big data. How Big Data Can Tell A Lot About You Just from Your Zip Code.

This is not good for data analytics. Any term which can be used to engender fear and nerves is not so much an asset as a liability.

There’s an apocryphal story about Target apparently identifying when a teenager was pregnant from her shopping habits, writing to her, her father finding out and getting into a rage with the local branch of Target and having to apologise. A number of people in the data industry have described it although I can’t actually find a source for it. A lot has been written about how retailers can learn a lot about you from your habits, however, which has an impact on which special offers you get when they deign to send you vouchers.

Some people find this a little bit creepy. This, together with news stories about What Your ZipCode Says About You and “What Big Data Knows About You” just reinforces this.

So a couple of things. We need to stop talking about Big Data. Big Data will come back to bite the analytics industry as consumers push back against what they perceive as a bit of spying and general creepiness. And we need to focus on the benefits to consumers of data analytics. It is not just a question of buying them off with extra vouchers. Pinterest, for example, is getting much better with recommendations for new boards (although once they get hold of an idea such as Treasa Likes Fountain Pens it takes weeks for them to realise I’m now following enough fountain pen boards). On the other hand, Amazon is not getting so much better with book recommendations lately.

The other problem I see with the label big data is that it allows people to avoid thinking about what they are really trying to achieve. The question “What are we doing about big data?” never comes across as anything other than “I read this in HBR and everyone’s on about it on my LinkedIn groups so we need to hop on this bandwagon”.

If you take a step back, it’s better to think about this question: “What data do we have, and are we using it effectively to support both ourselves and our customers”. It may be big, it may be small. Some of it may be system related – getting pages to load faster, for example – some of it may be habit recognition related – prefilling forms for transactions which happen regularly like, oh flying to London every Monday morning.

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