In praise of little data

There’s lots of hype about big data at the moment, but what about the importance of little data and the big answers it can give us?


Everyone’s talking about ‘big data’. There’s no doubt that there is more data than ever before. As George Dyson writes ‘when the digital universe began, in 1951 in New Jersey, it was just 5 kilobytes in size’. Today, by some estimates, the total amount of data in the world is 2.7 zettabytes. But sequence is different from time, quantity is different from quality, data is different from information. More is not always better. If we’re going to live in an era of big data, we need to find a way to democratise it. Big corporations and governments shouldn’t have a monopoly. There needs to be a human-scale interface for people to store, access, visualise and process data; a world-wide web of data. Businesses also need to find ways to share ‘little data’. By this I mean small excerpts or summaries of information drawn from larger databases which are useful to individuals. For example, on Turbine, this means:

  • How many holiday days have I got left this year?
  • Which colleagues are away from the office today?
  • What’s the budget for this purchase?
  • Did my boss approve my expense claim?
  • When is it getting paid?
  • Is my holiday request approved so I can book my summer holiday?

In fact, most of the time, what people want is not ‘big data’ but big answers.

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