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Why big data is only useful in the right hands

Why big data is only useful in the right hands

By Marc Munier, commercial director, Pure360

"Information is not knowledge." Albert Einstein knew what he was talking about: information is nearly useless unless you know how to use it. Possibly only one of a handful of humans is truly capable of making sense of large pieces of data.

In this the era of big information, when data - efficiently acquired, processed and used - can make the difference between excellence or failure, you can almost hear overtones of a dying Dalek saying ‘information overload’ over and over. Welcome to big data, not used properly it can be a pain in the butt.

The universe is composed of literally countless bytes of information. The problem is, we don’t know what to do with it. There may be something in there, but it could take years to find. Massive, difficult to analyse, impossible to process quickly: that’s big data - a great big bin in the sky. So why bother?

Well, as the very few who are able to store, grow and use big data including Twitter, the New York Stock Exchange, Google, Walmart, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo – they show that rubbish is clearly not rubbish.

Access big data, ask the right questions and bingo: previously impossible-to-find streams of data compared and analysed against other previously impossible streams of data results in streams of new and highly useful data. All in time to make a difference to whatever it is you’re looking to do.

In short, a business with access to real-time information, vis-a-vis the behavioural tendencies of millions of its users, is in the driving seat of a very fast car on a road clear of traffic. Big data is, potentially, very sexy information.

But only potentially, because most of us aren’t the few: we don’t have a Google File System, a MapReduce, IBM’s General Parallel File System. Using big data requires access to enormous parallel systems, systems made up of hundreds or thousands of servers, systems with built-in scalability capability.

So, what to do? You’re a medium to large sized company. Currently, for the purposes of your marketing campaigns, you buy in data or collect it organically. It can be expensive, lengthy to acquire and the information’s not always as useful as you might have hoped. You’ve heard about big data, you’re seduced by the prospect of having everything under one roof... What to do?

1.    Think carefully about what you want to achieve. Prioritise your needs

2.    Begin with one small and manageable project

3.    Build a refined and highly specialised database

Create what might be called an island of excellence - a manageable chunk of data designed to service a single objective.

How? Use what you have, catch a ride on whatever’s out there, research the possibilities of using open sourced data projects like Hadoop. Whatever you do, whoever you use or hire, make sure that the project’s ambitions remain firmly inside its original perimeters. Keep it simple. Make one thing work well.

Here’s an example - the NHS’s Information Service for Parents.

Set up for the express purpose of providing digitalised information – emails, text messages, social media messaging systems – to expectant or very recent parents, it is a computerised system that does exactly what it says on the tin. It collects, processes and distributes relevant information to a broad and constantly changing band of users. It analyses – quickly, efficiently – how its users use the system, the information; and it can be adapted - on the basis of data collected.

It’s not a brain cruncher. It doesn’t do your head in. It’s not Big Data. It’s an island of excellence. And it’s eminently achievable. Einstein would have loved it.

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