James Mullan Making big things happen with "big data"
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By James Mullan


Big data is, if you will excuse the pun, big at the moment and would appear to be the IT buzzword for 2012. But what is big data and what are some of the opportunities for information professionals that are provided by "big data"?


What is "big data"?

Put simply "big data" is data that exceeds the processing capabilities of conventional database systems. The data might be too big, might move too fast or doesn’t fit the structure of the database an organisation is using. Big data is different from other data because of four key elements; volume, velocity, variety and, perhaps most importantly, value

So what do these elements describe? Volume should be obvious; this is the amount of data being created, think Wal-Mart (a million sales an hour) and Facebook (1bn users) and you'll understand the size of the problem facing organisations. Velocity describes the rate at which the data is being created, which for big data usually means a lot of data very quickly. Variety describes the type of data being created, so big data will include traditional transactional data but will also increasingly include data from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Last but not least is value, which involves organisations looking at how they can integrate big data within existing systems and use it to make better business decisions. Unfortunately big data isn't just about designing a database and then populating this database with the data. Big data requires huge databases, powerful software and insight from experts to have a real impact on how products are sold, and services delivered.

The opportunities for information professionals

Now you might be thinking that the opportunities for information professionals to get involved with big data are minimal. But actually there are two opportunities presented by big data. The first is that big data will need to need to be "surfaced" and one of the most obvious ways to do this is through an intranet.

In a recent article James Robertson of Step two Designs discusses how intranets can be used to do this. In his article James describes how intranet dashboards can be built that can bring "key charts right to the front of the site" making the intranet a "powerful tool that … highlights the key information that drives activities, and a powerful message, reinforcing the importance of numbers". For intranet managers big data certainly presents an opportunity to surface information that is essential to the business; unfortunately the sheer scale of big data means that it's unlikely that it can be distilled down to a few graphs and figures.

The second is around "information literacy" and the potential for information professionals (business analysts, researchers etc) to have a role in training other users on how to interpret the big data that is being surfaced. Without adequate training on how to "use" the data that is being presented to them there's a very good chance that someone in an organisation will make a poor decision.

In summary, big data is, well, pretty big. But making big things happen with big data will only happen if the data is presented and used in a way that works for the entire organisation, not just a small subset. If you're interested in reading more about big data and its practical application within organisations then the resources linked below provide an introduction to this subject area.

Other resources:

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