Thursday January 3, 2013
The age of big data
By NIKI CHEONG
We could do well to empower ourselves with analytical skills in a society which thrives on data.
I AM not usually one for predictions, so I am not going to kick off this column in the new year trying to guess what everyone will be talking about – from a digital culture perspective, of course – in 2013.
The fact that technology changes so quickly, and so do our behaviours in adapting to these changes, means that predictions do not really mean much. Just take a look at the past few years.
Social media plays such an important part in our digital lives, yet no one imagined the role it would play in advancing democracy if not for the events of the Arab Spring.
But it’s not only in the much-debated role of social media on social movements in North Africa and the Middle East.
Those events also changed the way in which journalists and laymen alike produced and consumed news. In fact, it was largely these events that sparked conversation on the role of curators of information on the Internet.
While there are also arguments on whether or not “curator” is the best term to use to describe this process of shifting through, and then re-presenting, information disseminated on social networks, the fact is we are seeing more and more such actions and behaviours online.
There does appear to be a shift in focus, however, from this curatorship to that of analyst. And while this is not a prediction, it seems perfectly natural that we see the emergence of more digital analysts and the like this year and beyond.
This is because besides the topic of curators, there has also been a lot of discourse on data that are now currently available, thanks to digital technologies, not just in terms of conversations on social networking sites but also big data.
The idea of big data is not particularly new and has always focussed on sets of data that are so complicated and large that they are difficult to process. CRM.com’s Paul Greenberg describes big data as “the name given to the prodigious amounts of fast-moving data that typically can’t be handled by existing data tools.”
However, that’s not just the only kind of data that we – governments, organisations and individuals alike – are dealing with these days. Of late, the term has been used to describe many different forms of data.
In his article published in the science magazine Nature, Clifford Lynch suggests that “data can be ‘big’ in different ways”. Among these, he says, is not just about defining it based on computational and storage issues (as with Greenberg’s definition) but also in terms of its “lasting significance”.
Different people may understand the term differently but at the end of the day, there is no denying that we are now living in an era where a lot of focus is being placed on data – big or otherwise.
In Malaysia, the Personal Data Protection Act came into effect on Jan 1 this year, according to a report in The Star quoting Deputy Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Joseph Salang.
It is not just about personal data, however. There is currently an increasing realisation that there is a lot to be learned from data available out there – whether produced by governments or corporations, whether they are tweeted or compiled.
Those that are clued in are taking steps in ensuring that they are compiling as much data as possible related to them. It is equally important to ensure that the data is structured, properly stored and can be easily analysed and shared.
There is already an emergence of many tools that will assist in this process. Governments around the world are seeing great value in digitising data and digital humanists in academic institutions have been working on this for years.
The media fraternity, too, have been working at this.
The Associate Press has recently launched its The Overview Project, which is basically a tool to help journalists visualise data to help them with their stories.
In the age of social networking, marketeers have also been hiring digital agencies and analysts to make sense of their clients and customers based on publicly available data.
And what about the average layman like you and me?
In general, there are two concerns that we should constantly be aware of.
First is the personal issue of privacy. We need to be constantly aware of what kind of information we’re sharing with people, who has access to our information, and what they are doing with it.
Secondly, there is also the awareness that data isn’t only useful to organisations. Due to the fact that there is so much data available out there, which is becoming more and more structured, it is also a good time to adapt to the idea that having access to data can enrich our lives in many ways, thanks to the easy and mobile access we have to technology.
There will be an influx in the number of data analysts in the years to come.
Last year, the New York Times reported a projection that the United States will need “140,000 to 190,000 more workers with ‘deep analytical’ expertise and 1.5 million more data-literate managers, whether retrained or hired.”
There is no need to make a career out of it if you’re not inclined that way, but knowing what we know now, it doesn’t hurt to pick up some analytical skills for ourselves.
> Niki is a writer, consultant and speaker on media and digital culture. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com or on Twitter via @nikicheong.