Alex Steer

Better communication through data / about / archive

Big data and small ambitions

415 words | ~2 min

Having a drink last night with an old friend who spends a lot of time working with data and statistics, we realised we'd both heard too many talks this year that say one of two things.

The first is, Big data is going to change everything.

The second is, It's not the data that counts, it's what you do with it.

Both of which prove mainly that people like sounding smart. (Yes, I'm saying this on a blog. I know, sorry...)

More and more, my response to both of these is:

If you want to know which companies will succeed using big data, look at which ones succeed using small data.

Not exactly world-shaking, is it? But since about halfway through 2012 people have been talking about data as if it never existed before. Suddenly it's as if everyone is deeply committed to the idea that you can use information about people to find out more about their lives, needs, attitudes, values and behaviours. And it's as if this is somehow new.

It's not new, and many of the people who are suddenly banging the big data drum are to be doubted in their convictions, and in the scale of their ambition. Some (mainly on the IT side) have been gathering data for years and not making any serious use of it. Others (mainly on the advertising side) have been so consistently rude about the data that has been made available to them - by media agencies, by market research companies, by clients themselves - that you'd be forgiven for thinking that they considered data to be an impediment.

By contrast to both of these, there are people and there are organisations who for years have made every effort to make the most of any piece of information they could scrape together - using it, thinking laterally with it, taking it past the obvious and using it to keep themselves honest, and to push themselves to be more ambitious, and more creative. Trust them, not the latecomers.

Data can be an impediment to creativity if it is used badly. Just like more data can be used to find insights that unlock a new perspective on people. On that basis, having more data is valuable, in much the same way that having lots of bullets is useful in a fight. You just need someone who knows how to fire the gun.

# Alex Steer (15/06/2013)