August 7, 2012

From Big Data to Small Data

BY :     August 7, 2012

For the article The Age of Big Data in The New York Times MIT researcher Erik Brynjolfsson was interviewed by journalist Steve Lohr. The reason for the conversation was the new book “Race Against the Machine” by Brynjolfson and co-author Andrew McAfee, where both authors discuss the transformation of the economy caused by the information age. In particular, the huge amount of raw data – or Big Data – that people and machines produce and the new technologies to analyze and interpret all this data is causing a change in the way we do business.

During the interview, Brynjolfsson said the following: “To grasp the impact of Big Data, look to the microscope, invented four centuries ago. It allowed people to see and measure things as never before. Data measurement is the modern equivalent of the microscope.” In a previous article The Big Data Boom Is the Innovation Story of Our Time in The Atlantic magazine Brynjolfsson and McAfee articulate as follows “[The discovery of the microscope] represents a fundamental theme of discovery. Breakthroughs in innovation often rely on breakthroughs in measurement.”

Great revolutions in science often begin with a breakthrough in the field of measurement. We are now at the beginning of a new era, which is comparable to the start of modern science in the 17th century.

In this age of Big Data Doc Searls takes a new position. In his new book “The Intention Economy” he tells that it isn´t about lots of data, but it´s about very small, detailed data. It is the smallest set of data that provides unique insights into the needs of the individual. “Small Data” Seals calls it. In his vision Small Data will even become more important than Big Data: “[…] the end result is that the “small data” that’s yours will be more important than the “big data” behind marketing’s guesswork.  The two in the long run will dance together. But for now the small data side needs to get its act together. And it will.”

Searls is not the only one who thinks differently about Big Data. Professor Eric Brynjolfsson thinks the same. He gives the beast just another nickname: “Nanodata”. In the Dutch article Big data is overtaken by nanodata by Kristian of Tuil the thoughts of Brynjolfsson are succinctly expressed: “Ultimately, the trend of big data leads to […] the emergence of nano data: a science that will focus on the small, but essential facts that can be achieved from a big data stream. Big data tells us a lot about groups. Nanodata tells us everything about individuals, so companies can tailor them to operate, taking into account personal preferences.”

John Battelle, author of the book “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” in which he alluded Google as a “database of intentions”, takes the small data concept one step further. “Small” means to him very “intimate”: “To me, small means limited, intimate, and actionable by individuals. […] It’s intimate in that it’s data that matters a lot to each of us […] And should we choose to share a small amount of intimate data with the cloud, it’s important that the cloud understand the nature of that data as distinct from its masses of Big Data.”

So what does this mean? What will be more important in the future? Big Data or Small Data?

Sander Duivestein


Sander Duivestein (1971) is a highly acclaimed and top-rated trendwatcher, an influential author, an acclaimed keynote speaker, a digital business entrepreneur, and a strategic advisor on disruptive innovations. His main focus is the impact of new technologies on people, businesses and society.

More on Sander Duivestein.

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