Looking back and forward

I know I promised you all something interesting about Streetlights and Graffiti, and you will get it, I promise…eventually.  The last couple of weeks have been very busy with client work, so my own curiosities have been sitting on the sideline.  Sigh.  But not to worry, there’s interesting stuff being learned – and hopefully I’ll be able to share some of it here.

But in the meantime, I wanted to comment on a couple of articles I’ve seen in the last few weeks that have really got my brain engaged about the history of our sport, er, profession.  I recommend them all for reading and link following – there’s good stuff here.

First, Salon had an interview with Ann Blair from the Browser about the History of Information and how we evolved to collect, organize, and use data.  “Wow,” I thought, “there’s an official branch of history about what we do as data geeks!” I don’t know why that should surprise me, but there it is.  And while Blair points out that this field of study has grown significantly in the past decade, per her examples and book recommendations, in reality, “Data Science,” “Information Management,” and “Analytics” have been closely practiced for millennia.  This reminded me of the Silk Road examples that I used to use when discussing Retail Demand Analytics: merchants and traders have worried about their supply chains, inventory levels, and sales metrics since the days of the Silk Road.  So Walmart may have built the largest database, but the practice actually started a looong time ago.  BTW, Gil Press is working on a timeline of the specific history of Data Science and it looks great so far.  He’s asking for input on milestones, so help out if you can!

With all of that rolling around in my head, I came to Bob Warfield’s post on Big Data = BI + ADD.  In general, I completely agree with him that we’ve been dealing with BD for a while.  But there are a couple of things that feel different to me after 20+ years of doing this:

  • It’s not just about volume anymore.  Yes, there’s a lot of data in daily level retail sales for 100’s of products across storefronts from San Antonio or Sydney.  But the thing that always killed us were the different types of data.  And today it’s not daily, it’s hourly or transactional, minute by minute, second by second, nano by nano…you get the picture, things are changing.
  • It’s not just retail and financial services anymore.  All sorts of industries are realizing that they can’t be competitive without harnessing the volume of all the different stuff they call data.
  • Yes, we’ve always has some technology and technologists that could deal with lots of data and complex questions (Bob shows a perfect example in this post about his work for eBay), but those solutions weren’t feasible for the majority of companies or ordinary analysts.  That starting to change.

But the last point that Warfield makes is spot on:  It’s not about the data, which is important, but it’s about the questions.  And who is asking them?  And how good are they (we) at asking them? That’s where we really need to spend the time and energy.  Not on “can the database crunch the 0’s and 1’s” but on: “Do the right people who know their business best have the wherewithal to ask and answer their Right Questions?”  And do those people have access to the right tools to get their Big Answers?  Don’t get me wrong—data scientists are important and worth their weight in gold.  But so are the sales managers and shop floor leaders who really know what’s important for their customers’ success.

I like his idea – Big Data really should be Big Questions.  Or, rather, Big Answers.

Forward we go!

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