Why care about Big Data when you have Small Data

Praises for Big Data have made the headlines over the past few years. But what if we had it all wrong since the beginning? What if we had skipped a major step before getting there?

Big Data is not made for everyone – far from it

It is an expert’s domain

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Despite all the fuss around it, there s one ugly truth which is hard to hear and therefore often occulted: Big Data is really hard. Not everybody can just go ahead, dive into it and come back with a genius actionable plan for the company. More than that, the mysteries of Big Data are in the hand of a minority of people who often belong to the IT department. But what use is a gigantic set of data in the hands of people who won’t make that knowledge directly actionable? The complicated undertaking of excavating the useful data from the mass of information which was gathered from a multitude of customers and turn it into brilliant insights and genius marketing plans is not the job of a Data Scientist or Analyst. And that’s a shame because at the end of the day, this is what companies hope to achieve with Big Data.

Not every company can roll out Big Data

To make use of such an immense volume of data, a company needs to have the resources to collect and analyze it in the first place. Then, they must find a way to make it actionable. That means being able to provide the right data to the teams that will find a use for them. The problem is that those required resources are simply not within reach of every company: big data remains the prerogative of only the largest companies, those possessing time, money and human resources to harness this potential. That’s where Small Data comes in.

Big Data made us forget about Small Data. And we shouldn’t have.

What is Small Data?

The term certainly sounds less familiar than its Big brother – and yet, we’re actually much more familiar with it. Small data is data small enough to be understood by humans. It represents most of the data we see in our life, almost everywhere. As such, it is directly accessible and we can make use of it way more easily than Big Data. You might consider that while Big Data is about computers and machines, Small Data is about people. As Rufus Pollock, founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, put it, Small data is not “one ring to rule them all” but small pieces loosely joined”.

Contrarily to Big Data, everyone could directly benefit from Small Data

This is where it gets interesting. While Big Data can only be handled by the biggest corporations, Small Data allows everyone to make use of a multitude of smaller information that is far from less relevant for them. It basically means that both marketers AND customers could benefit from Small Data.

For the first ones, it means kissing their big budget mass-media campaigns desperately aiming at engaging customers goodbye. Small Data allows them to get a closer contact with and better understanding of their customers, therefore providing more insightful ideas to engage them: when exactly to target them, with what message and via which channel? We’re talking deeply personalized campaigns with a much higher ROI.

But the real interest of Small Data lies in the power it gives to people at the individual level, therefore shift from a one-way tunnel to a reciprocated relation. Companies collect a huge amount of data on their users or prospects – this aggregated data is what we call Big Data. How about giving that data to the consumers you have collected from? As Professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech Deborah Estrin put it, “let’s get our search engines, social networks and mobile carriers to start packing our small data for us”.

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There are tons of ways to unlock Small Data’s potential

The insights and uses we could make of Smart Data have been overlooked. I don’t need to know the exact electricity consumption of my whole neighborhood, nor the predictions for the next couple of year, that Big Data is focusing one. However, knowing how much energy I consume, when my peaks of consumptions occur and which of my equipments consume more… That is something I would find useful for me to improve the way I use energy. And all of this is Small Data. But this data has been looked down. To put it bluntly, I don’t care about knowing everything about everything and everyone: I just need to know the few useful attributes I can have an action upon so that I’ll improve my situation.

Fields of application are limitless: from health to energy consumption to education. There’s a not-so-recent trend that has been lead by brands such as Nike that encourage people to know more about themselves, in the context of a physical activity: apps allowing you to track your performance along with your health state at the same time. Education certainly is a major stake for Small Data: it could give children and students the tools to know more about their strengths and weaknesses or whether they remember a lesson better by reading or writing for instance. The idea would be to create a personalized learning program where students would be provided with meaningful information allowing them to get better and not falling behind. Again, they don’t need large amounts of data but small quantities only related to them. And education is just an example among many other.

Size does not matter

It’s time we stop praising Big Data and lend it virtues it does not possess – or that are at least not in the hands of a regular person or even company. Instead of focusing on the volume of data gathered, we should first think of which data we could make use of. In clear terms, it’s time to shift to Smart Data for good with the small pieces of information that are actually much more meaningful and relevant for everyone.

Then again, it would mean granting the average consumer information that large corporations value above all else and give them a resolute advantage in the balance of power. And I’m not sure that they are ready for this startling change.

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