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Simon Pont


The Quant of One: Big Data's Next Big Thing

Posted: 26/09/2013 22:41

We all love a good sound bite, a snappy label, a catchy tag. Our necks snap, our attention is caught, and we fall in love. New Labour. The Third Way. A Roadmap to Peace. Yes We Can. The Fiscal Cliff. Big Data.

Editorial 101: give 'em the quotable and instantly re-quotable. This is how ideas spread. And there's only one thing more contagious than an idea. It's an idea that can evolve, that serves as an open mic, that everyone can riff on. Because no sooner do we ingest and espouse these headline ideas, than we desire to then spin them in fresh, ever-revolving directions.

The best headlines are the invitation to become evolving thoughts.

Take 'Big Data'. It's been the label du jour long enough for speculators to question if it's time to fire up a new dawn and invert the prefix. Maybe data is no longer big? Maybe it's small?

'Big' and 'Small': early learning words with all manner of delicately contrived inferences.

Brands like using big. Businesses like using big. At least, they like using when they are big, or want to be perceived as bigger. Big is strong, mighty, has clout and stature, implies leverage and power. People buy into big.

And brands and businesses wield 'small' with equal finesse; small is nimble, agile, "boutique-like", can imply smart. People buy into small. David & Goliath was a tale conjured by those selling the virtues of 'small'.

But what has this got to do with data?

You see, data has changed, both in typology and our feelings toward it. This Digital Revolution of ours has changed our relationship with data.

Now I have an admission. I never really liked 'The Numbers'. They were for the numbers guys. I'd always inclined to let those Kings of Quant deal in the empirically abstract. For me, the numbers had always felt a bit too quant, too antiseptic, at a remove from scratched knee truths of the human condition. I'd never needed 'The Numbers' to tell me why people climb trees. I'd always been a qual guy; reasoned that human understanding was through interpreting the irrational, the small detail of facial tick and guilty tell; in reading between the lines of perhaps what wasn't said. Empathy and intuition had always been the reference points upon which I'd drawn my own 'best fit'.

Now it's not that I've flip-flopped on my view of qual. I still love qual. But I'll admit it. I'm in a quant U-turn. My feelings for quant have changed. Because data has changed.

Along came the digital revolution, and the data is now so much more than it once was. For starters, there's so much more of it. It's vast. Hence, 'Big Data', loads of the stuff, being produced all the time, as a consequence of a digital age where we're all connected and networking, and (almost) all carrying a phone around with us.

"Facebook reports that its users register 2.7 billion likes and comments per day. For many, this magnitude of data is intimidating: they can't keep up with it, much less sort it, analyze it, and extract value from it."
Philip Lee, Trends Crux, Feb 2013

Of course, 'Big Data' is really just an acknowledgement of how much data is now being created, and how it's tricky processing anything north of something as big as an exabyte. Imagine a really big elephant. No, not even close.

But framed another way, 'Big Data' becomes a crazy-exciting idea when it becomes this vast catch-all portrait of 'life', so much multi-source data that we can encourage to join hands, like an 'arms around the world and teach it to sing' Coke ad from the 70s. Because it can join hands. New data points are being joined all the time. Multi-source can be single-stacked, becoming an oceanic trench of data inviting us to dive in, swim down, keep swimming, and start whole new depths of discovering.

Where indices once left me cold, because they attempted to explain the motivations and behaviours of creatures whose blood runs warm, 'data' has turned body-temperature. To be human is now to create a data trail, a 'digital exhaust', new data, different kinds of data to the stuff we made before, and we're not talking a few binary crumbs, but a forensically lit trail, criss-crossing with everyone else's, like giving Saul Bass a pen and ruler and telling him to have some fun. These trails reveal our online movements and increasingly our offline movements. The data is a converged portrait of our digital and physically collided world.

Returning to Lee's earlier quote, the numbers remain a portrait of hidden value. The value is generated from interpretation, as ever, a matter of applied insight and elegance and bona fide smarts. Either side of a best fit line is always a steep gradient, a surface of hidden contours cast in fading light. However big or small the data gets, the task is how you choose to traverse it, negotiating the shadows, avoiding the treachery.

Which swings me round to small data: in the sense that all this giant data is potentially, quite simply, exposing individual human experiences more vividly and accurately than ever before. Meaning: it's exposing each of us. This intersection of 'Big Data' and 'Human Experiences'. A 'Quant of One'.

And this is only becoming a plausible contradiction because of how smart we're getting with the data, building machines that can learn and algorithms that adapt. A touch of Bayesian probability here, the application of NLP there, all fed into the real world versions of a HAL 9000. The 'Quant of One' becomes a very alive idea the moment trends become accurate predictions. Human actions, before the fact, revealed, through data; now there's a Minority Report kind of thought.

Maybe data is still big but now also small, and perhaps other prefixes are also deserving? Intimate. Knowing. Predictive. Human. The fact data is earning any prefix at all illustrates how it's changing - along with our feelings towards it... and how it's getting to know and reveal us.



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