Big Data Adolescence – Don’t be embarrassed by what you’ve got

“Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”  –Dan Ariely

We’ve all probably heard the above quote, it’s great in my opinion and hits the nail on the head. Big Data definitely is in an adolescent stage, it’s maturing but it’s not quite there, it might be starting to take shape but in some ways it’s obvious it’s not fully grown up.

As always there’s a bit of an awkwardness during adolescence, recently I’ve started to liken the Big Data conversations I regularly have to what it was like in the communal showers after P.E. (Physical Education) at school. Some of the guys are walking round unashamed, showing off what they’ve got, others are just dashing through hoping that no-one notices them; then there’s the one guy getting towel-whipped in the corner (SAS perhaps getting a whipping from my friends at Alteryx judging by their recent campaign?).

So which are you? How is your Big Data strategy? Are you strutting your stuff at conferences, proud of how big your data is? or are you ashamed, worried it’s not quite big enough to impress anyone?

How do you stop feeling embarrassed about your data? With maturity will come the realisation that it’s not how much you’ve got, it’s what you do with it. So below I’ve listed my favourite five questions that really tell me about how data savvy an organisation is – it’s not all about how many rows of data they have collected. There’s nothing complex or new here, I’m not trying to reinvent anything – but it’s always worth reminding ourselves about fundamentals before we get too carried away with Big Data hype.

1. Does everyone in your organisation know what data you have and where it is?

It’s a simple strategy: maintain a data dictionary, even if it’s just in Excel, and ensure it’s available to everyone in your organisation who needs it. A Sharepoint site is great for this if you have one. Publicise the dictionary within your organisation. If people know where to find the data they are looking for they are more likely to use it or think of it when it comes to making decisions.

2. How many people in your organisation can run Data Analysis?

Socialise your data analysis within the business; I’m a big fan of tools like Alteryx and Tableau, which (among others) allow you to take complex analysis and package it into Apps (in Alteryx’s case) or Vizs (in Tableau’s case) and parameterise them; making them simple to understand and run. Sharing them with the rest of the business promotes a confidence in the data, and by allowing teams to self-serve analysis, allows data analysts to focus on more complex analysis.

3. Are you making the most of free data?

There’s lots of data sources out there that cost nothing to download and use. Open Data, particularly in the UK, is very useful assuming you’re willing to do some work yourself. Everything from boundaries and geography look-ups through to police and health data are available online. However remember that this data won’t necessarily be clean, and may need some work to ensure it delivers as much punch as it’s commercial alternatives. So spend some time understanding where the Open Data benefits are for your organisation.

Social data too is very accessible, you can use the Twitter API (if you have Alteryx it’s very accessible via a simple tool) to do some limited searches to understand who’s engaging with your brand online – use this to test and maybe justify a wider Social Media strategy before committing to paid “Firehose” services like Gnip.

4. Do you know who your customers are and who you’d like them to be?

Understanding who your customers are is one thing, plenty of data can be purchased to help understand who is buying your product or using your services, however the next step is then analysing that data to understand who are the profitable customers. Moving your brand and marketing to target those customers can make a massive difference in the long term.

Brands who survive know about their customers, brands who thrive know who they want their customers to be.

5. Do you have a Data Strategy?

This is about understanding how data affects your organisation and what questions you need to answer next in order to make most impact to your business. Being thoughtful and retrospective about your data analysis, allowing time to review results and plan your next actions means building a data strategy. What questions might you need to answer in 6 months? What about next year? This might lead to a “Big Data” strategy – there’s certainly no harm in capturing every user interaction with your website, say, if you think there are useful consequences and it doesn’t distract from the immediate questions.

If you don’t have a data strategy it’s easy to be dragged into chasing technology because it’s there and “everyone else is doing it” without any meaningful actions coming out. So focus on actions and results, not technology – only use a new technology to solve problems that can’t be solved with existing technologies, or to gain a measurable business benefit by speeding up the process of getting answers to existing problems.


Thanks for reading – do you have any fundamentals you think I’ve missed? Let me know.

(P.S. I’m running a Marathon in April in aid of the Mental Health Foundation – in memory of my brother Steve who took his own life two years ago – find out more here:


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