Big Data is one of those terms you hear that gets a mixed reaction. Some people are working with it day in and day out (some name it, some don’t), whereas others fear and hate its application because of perceived misuse and association with intrusive surveillance and commerce. I believe the digital age is in its infancy and we ain’t seen nothing yet. How can we get a handle on what this means at a personal level for our professional development?

What is Big Data?

According to Wikipedia, Big Data is

“a blanket term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using … traditional data processing applications. The challenges include capture, curation, storage, search, sharing, transfer, analysis and visualization.”

In plain English, Big Data is an umbrella term for

“business intelligence, analytics packages, information databases. All these combine to give companies unprecedented statistical understanding of their customers or client base.” (Guardian 2014)

It encompasses a range of interpretations including

“a mindset that is obsessed with quantitative information; an approach to decision-making; a new way of doing some kinds of modern science; a computing technology that combines massive processing power with formidable storage capacity; a way of detecting terrorist and criminal networks; a way of building detailed profiles of customers to sell more stuff to them.” John Naughton, The Observer 2014.

Some Examples

Here are four examples I’ve spotted recently of Big Data being used in sport, politics, the arts and success in the workplace:

  • Check out this article An Exceptional Story Told With Exceptional Data about why Lionel Messi is one of the greatest footballers on the planet at the moment.
  • Blogger, Nate Silver, correctly predicted the outcome of the last US presidential election, including every single State result.
  • Arts administrators took a Big Data perspective to analyse audience behaviour to reveal that a quarter of so-called ‘new attenders’ aren’t new to the arts at all, and frequent attenders are exploiting ticket discounts aimed at engaging new customers.
  • Alistair Shepherd, an engineering graduate, who has used Big Data to correctly predict the ranking of teams competing with each other, identifying high performers and successful candidates for jobs (as opposed to interview-based decision-making).

Understanding, using and making sense of Big Data for practical business use will be increasingly part of being digitally literate. I don’t think any of us can ignore it. In my work, that means educators, students, employees, learning and development practitioners, job seekers and hiring managers.

“Literacy is more than a skill. It is the capability to be able to interpret meaning within context… Digital literacies are characterised through the appropriate interpretation and use of digital media and technology.”  Steve Wheeler, Plymouth University

As Steve observes, it’s like the difference between driving in England and driving in France or the social (n)etiquette we learn using social media. We learn to interpret what is appropriate in different contexts.

“Data is only an insight, not the answer… There is definitely more data today and as a result better decisions are being made.” Sri Sharma, millionaire-founder of Net Media Planet.

How does Big Data relate to the context of your employer, field, job or the role you want?  To what extent can you use and interpret Big Data? What does it mean for your personal and professional development?