Big Data’s Travails Don’t Mean It’s Derailed

Even the best companies can struggle to get good results from their data. That may make it easy for some executives to dismiss big data as hype. But in universities, researchers are beginning to use new tools and datasets to answer longstanding big questions in healthcare, public policy and finance, with significant implications for how companies will operate.

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Big data is going nowhere fast. That’s both a double entendre and a millstone. Big data isn’t going anywhere — we’re generating 2.5 exabytes of data every two days. But most companies struggle to do much with the data they have.

CIOs are already dismissive of the Big Data concept. At the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, one panel had a running joke where panelists tried to top each other with new words for big, like “colossal” and “gargantuan.” Their point? “Big” data is really just data.

No matter what it’s called, what isn’t happening is the revolution in what companies know about customers and how they can change their businesses.

Even the best companies fail to do much with their data. In this Boston Globe column, If the Internet is so smart …, Alex Beam skewered Facebook and Google for the often nonsensical way they deliver ads. For instance, why does he repeatedly get ads for a product he has already purchased online? Facebook and Google are supposed to be the best of the best when it comes to data. If even the best companies don’t always do a good job with their data, can anybody?

At the CIO Symposium, Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT Sloan professor and director of the Center for Digital Business, said the problem resembles that created when Anton van Leeuwenhoek began building remarkably high resolution microscopes. He could see things like “animal cules” swimming in a drop of water. The trouble was, nobody else had such a good microscope, which meant nobody else could measure things the way van Leeuwenhoek did.

Brynjolfsson said big data and analytics were early in their own revolution of measurement — one that will affect management, economics (and indeed all of the social sciences) and the information economy at large. “There will be a whole new set of tools that allow us to see what’s going on in organizations, between companies, even what’s going on inside people’s heads as they make decisions,” he said.

Some of those tools are emerging. Brynjolfsson moderated The Reality of Big Data, a panel featuring three MIT professors discussing how massive data sets were changing government, healthcare and finance.

One of these professors,


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