11 Sep “Big Data” or “Big Information”? New Ways of Thinking About Data
John was startled by the results of a simple new way of looking at data. By plotting the geo-location of some symptomatic healthcare data in and around Soho, he had pinpointed the cause of a killer disease. But John was not a pioneer in modern data analysis.
This is, of course, the famous story of John Snow’s map and his discovery of a standpipe in Broad Street that was the cause of an outbreak in cholera in 1854. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.
The Victorian era was probably the last time that there was such an explosion in the gathering of data and its interpretation. Something we now call “Big Data” as if it was a new and unknown quantity has been around since the Babylonians started recording information on tablets of clay. The explosion of “insight” into health data, as much as the novels of Dickens, led to an enormous improvement in public health in the late-19th century.
But what has all this got to do with eCommerce and digital marketing? Our thoughts are that “Big Data” is not really a very helpful term. Anyone can capture lots of data – what is really important should be “Big Information”.
There are several important questions that must be asked. Firstly, where and how do you store that data so that you can slice and dice it in a meaningful way? What information are you really looking for; how do you prove true correlation against coincidence; how deep and sophisticated are your attribution models?
And probably almost as important – how do you communicate that information to the wider organization? At Jutland, naval intelligence in Whitehall knew exactly where the German fleet was but hadn’t worked out how to let the British fleet know. The Battle of Britain was a victory not just of radar and Spitfires but of an extremely efficient system of information communication.
The lateral thinker Edward de Bono wrote that the more data you have the better. This is like someone driving a mini around Silverstone saying that the more you press the accelerator the faster you will go. If you apply the same theory in a Formula 1 car you will quickly come off at the first bend. We are in a similar situation with data.
The US military recognized in Iraq that too much data could have a dangerously paralyzing effect, as their expensive systems pumped out more information than their analysts could handle. It is now so easy to produce and record data that it can easily lead to analysis paralysis. “Big Data” can lead to “Big Information”, but it needs to be limited and focused so that it is easily monitored. This enables it to be communicated and make a profitable change.
Our final thought comes from Patrick and his favourite advert for Levi jeans. No amount of analysis would have proven that a man taking his jeans off in a launderette would have sold more jeans. Sometimes the human instinct has a huge part to play in a world that is far more about emotional choice than rational thought.
In other words we will always need the human touch and it is important to have a balance in influence between the bots of data analysis and the instinct of the mad men. All of which of course proves that…the future is human.