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#sowhoknew: Stop talking ‘Big Data’ and start thinking ‘Smart Data’

There is a school of thought which maintains that ‘all data is good’. Well personally, I think most of it is garbage. Rather than focus our attention on ‘big data’, I suggest that we turn our attention to ‘smart data’ to find the proverbial diamonds in the dirt (or, erm, aluminium in the bauxite?). Read on…

The term ‘Big Data’ was first coined over 17 years ago. And in the past five years it seems to have become a part of almost every marketing conversation. But why? Simply gathering masses of information is the digital equivalent of a hoarder, keeping every scrap of information for no apparent reason.

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Gary Vaynerchuk is a smart guy. Serial entrepreneur, social commentator, Fortune ’40 under 40′ alumni and a Jets fan (well three out of four ain’t bad). I was lucky enough to see him speak at a Yahoo! event a few years ago in New England talking about the perils of Big Data. He talked very eloquently (and somewhat emotively) about a children’s hospital in the US which has the highest infant mortality rate in the country. He then asked a very powerful question, “So let’s assume that your own child was very ill, would you send them to this hospital to be treated?”

As you can probably imagine, not one person in the audience said that they would. He then slowly shook his head and said that we were basically all idiots who had been suckered by the lure of Big Data. The reality was that this particular hospital offers the best possible treatment for desperately poorly children. Consequently they have the most talented paediatricians and the best equipment that money can buy. But the fact is that because they take on the so-called ‘no hope’ cases that most other hospitals would refuse to treat, on paper their mortality rate is unusually high. A grim topic but the example expertly portrays why Big Data alone can be so misleading. As with all smart insights, the truth lies not in ‘what’ or ‘when’ but in the ‘how’ and ‘why’ – and these are questions that Big Data alone cannot answer.

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So why is everyone so preoccupied with talking about Big Data? Well it has simply become an easy (lazy?) ‘catch-all’ phrase for every data point we can now capture, from the behaviours on our various devices to wearable technology to the Internet of Things (or, as I prefer, the Internet of Everything). But the catch-all has become a misnomer. As Kevin Coleman, industry ‘data’ expert and former strategy director at Netscape, put it so succinctly in his article for Extreme Tech, “Data when processed becomes information. Information when analysed becomes knowledge. And knowledge, when applied, becomes intelligence.”

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Coleman talks about the dangers of focussing not upon Big Data but what he calls ‘huge data’ where we all become increasingly obsessed with how we store the zettabytes (1 zettabyte = 1 trillion gigabytes, but of course you knew that right?) of data we collect, rather than how we mine the relatively small amounts of smart data we can actually use for a positive purpose.
So in effect, Big Data is no more than a raw material. I think of it like bauxite. Yep, that is right bauxite. And, I’m sure you all know this, that is the raw material from which aluminium is extracted. It represents seven per cent of the earth’s crust and is the most abundant element after oxygen and silicon (boy, my Geology teacher would be proud reading this). But extracting aluminium from bauxite is a lengthy, difficult and expensive process. But the end result is worth the time, effort and expense (as the Aston Martin DB9 typifies rather well).

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Companies such as Exelate have built their businesses on this premise. Their belief is that Big Data has not fulfilled its promise of providing a clear and consistent business advantage. Their distinction is clear – they want data that drives business value because it is “accurate, actionable and agile”, and that is precisely why we should stop talking about Big Data and start thinking about smart data. Or diamonds instead of dirt. Or even aluminium instead of bauxite.

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.
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