Lost for words
I have been the first to be overly critical of those that define big data solely by size and (absence of) structure. That being said, it is inescapable that data volumes have reached an inflection point. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Andrew McAfee makes a pretty startling observation. Data has gone from being measured in terabytes to petabytes and exabytes. He explains that in 2012 Cisco announced that its equipment was recording a zettabyte of data. Not startling so far and, in any case, outside of the circle of data geeks, few will have heard of a zettabyte. The more jarring fact is that the next metric for measuring data is the final one. After the zettabyte is a yottabyte (10 to the power of 24 as you asked ) and then that’s it. We have literally run out of words to describe how big, big data is.
Big v Different
Commentators such as Jeff Jonas and Kenneth Culkier make the point that big is not just big. Big can be different. David Weinberger, one of the authors of the CluetrainManifesto, makes a similar point in his book Too Big to Know. He proposes that knowledge has been shaped, perhaps even limited by its medium. Only the most important, meticulously researched facts were committed to paper until the invention of the printing press. Even then, the printed medium carried figurative and literal weight.
In describing Big Data in Decision Sourcing, we contrast transactional data with ambient data. Transactional data was limited by traditional data processing originally in the form of the punch card and more latterly the relational database. Ambient data, however, exists all around us. It’s size meant that it went unobserved or at least uncaptured. This is what has changed. Affordable and available technology means that signals generated through the internet of things and human social interaction can be captured in digital form providing new (and different) sources of insight. The relational database limited us to recording invoice lines and account details whilst new forms of data management allow us to capture every human gesture, comment and click. Meanwhile the machines are logging everything they do.
Metric prefixes were last updated in 1991 at the 19th General Conference on Weights and Measures and beyond yotta, we got nothin’. Big Data means disruptive, transformational change in a way that we don’t completely understand today. In fact we don’t even have a name for what comes next. Yet.