Big data, cool kids

Making sense of the hype-cycle scuffle.

My data's bigger than yours!

My data’s bigger than yours!

The big data world is a confusing place. We’re no longer in a market dominated mostly by relational databases, and the alternatives have multiplied in a baby boom of diversity.

These child prodigies of the data scene show great promise but spend a lot of time knocking each other around in the schoolyard. Their egos can sometimes be too big to accept that everybody has their place, and eyeball-seeking media certainly doesn’t help.

POPULAR KID: Look at me! Big data is the hotness!
HADOOP: My data’s bigger than yours!
SCIPY: Size isn’t everything, Hadoop! The bigger they come, the harder they fall. And aren’t you named after a toy elephant?
R: Backward sentences mine be, but great power contains large brain.
EVERYONE: Huh?
SQL: Oh, so you all want to be friends again now, eh?!
POPULAR KID: Yeah, what SQL said! Nobody really needs big data; it’s all about small data, dummy.

The fact is that we’re fumbling toward the adolescence of big data tools, and we’re at an early stage of understanding how data can be used to create value and increase the quality of service people receive from government, business and health care. Big data is trumpeted in mainstream media, but many businesses are better advised to take baby steps with small data.

Data skeptics are not without justification. Our use of “small data” hasn’t exactly worked out uniformly well so far, crude numbers often being misused either knowingly or otherwise. For example, over-reliance by bureaucrats on the results of testing in schools is shaping educational institutions toward a tragically homogeneous mediocrity.

The promise and the gamble of big data is this: that we can advance past the primitive quotas of today’s small data into both a sophisticated statistical understanding of an entire system and insight that focuses down to the level of an individual. Data gives us both telescope and microscope, in detail we’ve never had before.

Inside this tantalizing vision lies many of the debates in today’s data world: the need for highly skilled data scientists to effect this change, and the worry that we’ll inadvertently enslave ourselves to Big Brother, even with the best of intentions.

So, as the data revolution moves forward, it’s important to take the long view. The foment of tools and job titles and algorithms is significant, but ultimately it’s background to our larger purposes as people, businesses and government. That’s one reason why, at O’Reilly, we’ve taken the motto “Making Data Work” for Strata. Data, not technology, is the heartbeat of our world because it relates directly to ourselves and the problems we want to solve.

This is also the reason that the Strata and Hadoop World conferences take a broad view of the subject: ranging from the business topics to the tools and data science. If you talk to Hadoop’s most seasoned advocates, they don’t speak only about the tech; they talk about the problems they’re able to solve. The tools alone are never enough; the real enabler is the framework of people and understanding in which they’re used.

Our mission is to help people make sense of the state of the data world and use this knowledge to become both more competitive and more creative. We believe that’s best served by creating context in which we think about our use of data as well as serving the growing specialist communities in data.

Enjoy the noise and the energy from the growing data ecosystem, but keep your eyes on the problems you want to solve.

The Strata and Hadoop World Call for Proposals is open until midnight EDT, Thursday May 16.

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  • vanrijmenam

    Good article, big data is a constantly evolving trend that will affect all industries and companies worldwide eventually. There are more and more tools appearing, also open source tools (http://bit.ly/10Tu1l1) that enable companies to gain more and more insights.

  • Jeff

    Concerning inadvertently enslaving ourselves to Big Brother, you might be interested in my new blog: http://www.gamificationjunkie.com.