I talk a lot about the importance of data — public data, shared data, Big Data, open data, green data — but every once so often I run into this question or some variation on it.
What is the real value of Big Data?
Why would my organization possibly need Big Data?
How important is Big Data, really?
As a statistician, I can sometimes get caught up in educating the people I work with on when, where, and how to use data to enhance or measure their efforts, and maybe tend to overlook the why part of the question.
Before any team starts honing their skills or gathering resources for data acquisition or analysis — all valuable investments, I promise — it’s important to understand why the data is being collected and analyzed in the first place.
Do You Need Big Data?
Back when Big Data was the buzzword of the day, a research team from the Harvard Business Review stunned us all by reporting that many organizations were wasting resources on big data.
What? But everyone needs Big Data!
The problem, they found, was not in the inherent value of Big Data itself, but rather that organizations investing in collecting the data had no idea what they were gathering it for or what they should do with it once they had it. Wired soon followed suit with a piece suggesting that the “big” part was blinding many to the true value of Big Data — there was too much focus on gathering as much data as possible, and not enough on leveraging it to improve operations, policies, or procedures.
Does That Mean We Need Small Data?
All data is not created equal. In fact, I wrote a blog post about that a few years ago where I highlighted different kinds of data and how they could help (or hinder) nonprofits’ efforts to leverage the Big Data movement.
But more importantly, I mentioned a few questions that any organization considering the value of Big Data should ask before they embark on a data acquisition quest:
- What data will prove worthwhile?
- What data is cost-effective and useful?
- What data is reliable and trustworthy?
Your emphasis should be on acquiring data that suits your team’s needs — that will answer your questions or provide the insights you require — rather than on getting a specific type of data (big, small, open, internal, or otherwise).
The Value of Big Data
I did start this post saying I would discuss where the value of Big Data lies, and now that I’ve emphasized the importance of data suitability over data type, there are a few big pluses to Big Data that your team may be able to leverage:
Big Data is, as we have discussed before, BIG. The sheer volume of information that is available when we access Big Data provides us with a wealth of knowledge — assuming we employ statistical reasoning to reveal meaningful patterns and relationships.
Part of the value of Big Data lies in the sheer range of perspectives from which it will allow you to examine a situation. There are endless streams of Big Data that can prove useful to social sector organizations, from geolocation data to social networking data to demographics, and many nonprofits are finding new and innovative ways to use Big Data to change the world.
This aspect of Big Data can be a bit of a double-edged sword. The pace at which Big Data is generated is often much more rapid than any individual study your nonprofit team might conduct — fantastic for getting analysis underway so you can move on to helping people. But take care to ensure you validate the validity of your data and analyze carefully — rushing ahead can lead you into some of the pitfalls of Big Data.
Expert Help Leveraging Big Data
There’s a lot to be gained from careful, correct use of Big Data — but it’s not an undertaking for the faint of heart. If you or your team would like to learn more about the value of Big Data, or need help getting started with Big Data analysis, you don’t have to go it alone.
The experts at Datassist specialize in helping nonprofits, journalists, and government agencies leverage data (both big and small) to their advantage. We can help you locate, collect, analyze, and visualize the data that you need to measure impact or educate your audience. Drop us a line to discuss how we can help you.