Data – it's not big and it's not clever

No matter how you feel about journalists, we know how to deal with big data, writes Nick Booth.

Companies like Oracle, Qlik, SAP, IBM and The Hambleton Group constantly bombard us with unstructured information that's really difficult to analyse. I'd love to follow their drift but it's all over the place. The deluge comes in a blizzard of formats. Voice calls, emails, IMs, Pokes, Tweets, Skypes, URLs, PDFs, Word docs, web conferences and, if we're lucky, a face to face conversation that'll be converted into a shorthand squiggle.

That big data brolly againAll these media are massive conduits for information, so the senders stuff them with as many words as possible. Words like paradigm shift, unrivalled, world class, evolutionary, customer focused and best of breed are particularly popular. Popular, but totally meaningless. Since when have businesses not been 'customer facing'? Do you think members of The Oldest Profession ever neglected to face their customers? (Come to think of it, they could have charged extra for that).

It seems there's no limit to the amount of data they'll chuck at you. Their job seems to be to bung it all in and expect you to make sense of it. It's like throwing a sinner a copy of the Bible and expecting them to find the relevant passage.

If, say, you're trying to research the impact of big data on telcos, you can be overwhelmed with wordy documents seemingly written in riddles. After far too long, given how simple this task assignment should be, a pattern finally emerges from all this pointless guff. Buried amongst all these wasteful words are some gems of useful information and, once extracted and analysed, they could be really valuable. Because they tell you something you need to know.

The Big data industry, they'll have you believe, has created tools that can somehow wade through all the drivel that lands on a company's servers and find some useful insights into the human condition. Supposedly, they can programme algorithms that analyse sentiment expressed by the buffoons who use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every other type of social and anti-social media and make commercial sense out of them. If they could pull that off, they deserve a Nobel prize. But I don't believe it for a second.

There has to be a simpler way of gaining insight.

Maybe we should restrict the amount of information that's blasted out into the atmosphere. There's a sort of information pollution going on. The branding industry is trying to steal all our most previous resources – our time, our memories, our concentration spans – and fill them up with ghastly marketing messages. A tax on Tweeting might be a good idea. And maybe a ban on Facebook.

Then we should rationalise the way we deal with data. It should be instinctive. For example, there's a big trend for telcos and communications service providers to apply big data analytics to all the zillions of bites their photo, film and Facebook obsessed punters clog up the networks with. They do this, apparently, in order to find the best insights into what customers want.

They shouldn't bother. If mobile operators really cared about their customers, they'd help us find the right tariffs for our system of use. Instead, as I found with Orange recently, they're more than happy to ignore you completely, right up to the minute you ask for your PAC code. Mobile operators should forget about customer insights, and just operate on the principle that every customer is about to leave them.

I've evolved my own efficient methods of dealing with the big data bombardment that takes place over a lunchtime briefing. Ignore it all, concentrate on enjoying your meal and only write down the bits that you can remember later. It it's important, you'll remember it.

If they can find a computer to operate on that principle, they'll have cracked it. We're living in a world of too much information. I have a rule for data: if it's big, it's not clever.

PS: There's no such company as The Hambleton Group, dear reader. I put that in to test your big data filtering skills.

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