Opinion

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Why are we still getting big data wrong?

4 Mins

As everyone today knows, we are surrounded by more data than ever before. Indeed, it’s almost become a cliché to wonder at how fast the world’s repositories of information are growing. 

With these massive stores of data comes the potential for incredible power and problem-solving; just look at the Internet of Things, a burgeoning network of interconnected hardware that incessantly feeds information back to us.

In science-fiction film and literature, one of the perennial issues with world-changing new technology is whether it’s used for good or evil. In its own way, the same problem exists with information today. 

Now, I’m not trying to say that a nefarious genius will harness the power of data to wreak havoc; what I regard as an equally troubling use (well, almost) is the propensity for people to deploy data in a way that is banal, as opposed to interesting or informative.

Increasingly, we see news articles constructed around research that necessitates the collation of thousands – or millions – of bits and bytes of information, in the aid of telling us that Britons tip an average of £4.18 – or something else along those lines. 

The practice of companies commissioning research around frivolous subjects is slightly worrying, largely because you have to wonder how much truly important research, which takes place daily in laboratories and academic institutions the world over, might be being pushed out of the news pages due to the lack of a snappy headline.

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Meanwhile, data issues have already come to the boil in the third sector, albeit in a slightly different light. Earlier this year, Debra Allcock Tyler, CEO of the Directory of Social Change, suggested that much of the data gathered by charities isn’t put to good use. Is this being brought about by inexpert deployment of big data technologies? Or is it a symptom of some fundamental flaw in the big data universe?

I certainly don’t think it’s the latter. Paradoxically, part of the problem is that big data has so much clear potential, and that it is being used in all kinds of inventive and compelling ways. 

Some of its most effective uses have come in the business sphere; the ability to access relevant news far quicker than was previously possible, for instance, is a very attractive proposition. 

Thanks to a new breed of companies who deal in data, and which aggregate millions of articles and blogs every day, this is now a reality.

There is so much to anticipate when it comes to the productive, efficient use of big data. 

The problem seems to be that too few people concentrate on its potentially beneficial uses, and insist on creating research-based articles that tell us little of genuine interest. Maybe part of the problem is that too few people have enough substantial knowledge of the intricacies of these systems to successfully create intuitive, usable products. 

Either way, news needs to report on the many potential benefits of big data, rather than relying on promotional pieces that tell us little actual information.

David Benigson is CEO and cofounder of media monitoring and market intelligence firm Signal.

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