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What the Heck is Big Data?


My favorite description of big data comes from Lisa Arthur of Forbes. She writes, “Big data is new and ‘ginormous’ and scary –very, very scary. No, wait. Big Data is just another name for the same old data marketers have always used, and it’s not all that big, and it’s something we should be embracing, not fearing. No, hold on. That’s not it, either. What I meant to say is that big data is as powerful as a tsunami, but it’s a deluge that can be controlled . . . in a positive way, to provide business insights and value. Yes, that’s right, isn’t it?”

Got it?

If you are confused about exactly what is meant by “Big Data” you are not alone. There are about as many definitions as there are people who talk about it, but there are some generally accepted ideas about what it means. In short, Big Data is an evolving term that describes any voluminous amount of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data that has the potential to be mined for information.

The term is often associated with the three V’s:

  • The massive volume of data
  • The wide variety of types of data
  • The velocity at which the data grows

 Although Big Data doesn't refer to any specific quantity, the term is often used when speaking about petabytes and exabytes of data. Some even say that if it breaks Excel, it’s Big Data.

Daniel Gillick, Senior Research Scientist at Google, does a good job of explaining what big data means in practical application, “Historically, most decisions — political, military, business, and personal — have been made by brains that have unpredictable logic and operate on subjective experiential evidence. ‘Big data’ represents a cultural shift in which more and more decisions are made by algorithms with transparent logic, operating on documented immutable evidence. I think ‘big’ refers more to the pervasive nature of this change than to any particular amount of data.”

The reason that this shift from subjective thinking to data driven analysis is possible is that everything is digitized these days. Every time you do a Google search or send a Tweet, you are contributing to the massive amount of data that is available for analysis. Each click might be meaningless on its own, but when considered among millions of others, patterns that reveal the way we behave, the things we want and how we are connected begin to emerge.

There’s big money in Big Data. Global organizational spending on Big Data is predicted to reach $114 billion in 2018, according to a global study conducted by Capgemini. The study found that nearly 60% of executives believe that Big Data will disrupt their industry within the next three years.

What does it mean for PR? With the right tools, PR professionals can now make strategic and tactical decisions based on data rather than hunches or instincts. In fact, Big Data makes it possible to predict the results of future campaigns or the potential impact of media mentions that haven’t happened yet. Metrics that were once difficult to measure, like brand awareness and sentiment, can now be talked about in terms of actual statistics, making them much more meaningful.

PR teams should not be frightened by the rise of Big Data. Rather, we should be excited about the possibilities it presents. It can be used to answer our most difficult questions and to guide our action plans.  As Shashi Upadhyay, CEO and Founder of Lattice Engines put it, “Whether it is predicting illness, the weather, the spread of infectious diseases, or what you will buy next, it offers a world of possibilities for improving people’s lives.”

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