​Are We on the Verge of a Big Data Breakthrough?

Size matters. And in data, sometimes smaller is better. After decades of trying to decode the mysteries of big data, smart companies are looking to specialized data providers rather than trudging through mounds and mounds of their own data. Finally, those who want meaning from data can take a more contextual, specialized approach.

On its “What is Big Data” page, IBM observes, “Big data is being generated by everything around us at all times.” Take a moment and think through your own day, considering all the data you generated just this morning. If you own any smart devices, you might have even recorded some of these metrics:

  • Your iPhone alarm went off at 6:30
  • You hit snooze twice and got up at 6:48
  • Tapped your Apple Watch to note sleep patterns
  • Walked into the bathroom and stood on your Withings scale
  • Counted calories at breakfast using MyFitnessPal, and
  • Set your Nest thermostat to 65F before leaving for work

While these metrics might be interesting, the usefulness of this data varies greatly. Ultimately, data is only useful when it helps us track and achieve a goal.

In order to make sense of all this data and to start setting goals, we need to introduce a new concept: context. Context is the lens we look through when making decisions. Context tunes out noise and allows us to focus on what matters. Context establishes boundaries, keeping us from wandering off in too many directions.

A runner training for a marathon might track miles run, pace, and heart rate. The context is running, the goal is completing the marathon in a specific amount of time, and data helps the runner understand his own progress towards that goal. There are countless other metrics he could track, but in the given context, they won’t be as helpful to achieving his goal. Our runner is looking for specialized data.

Today, data-driven companies are realizing economies of specialization. Some focus on health factors, others on television viewing behaviors; still others hone in on retail receipt data. What has evolved from a problem of “not enough” has become “too much”. The best providers are showing companies how data can be useful to them by becoming experts in how to use various types of data to solve specific business problems.

Simply put, data is no longer about mere accumulation. Companies require context and an answer to, “So what?” The desire for more data is being supplanted by a desire for more useful data. If big data really is on the verge of a breakthrough—and I think it is—it is because data providers are starting to produce more specialized data sets. So, if you want to make the most of the next big thing in data, remember to think small.


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