Let’s imagine that big data can be compared to TV. This may sound far-fetched, but it might prove to be a good analogy, and at least it will break the monotony surrounding big data.

If we believe the many blogs, tweets and Web seminars that contemplate big data, it’s about little more than heavyweight technology. Worse yet, when authors do mention uses of big data analysis, they typically fail to distinguish such use cases from whatever we were supposed to have gained before.

Last summer at the Pacific Northwest BI Summit, two experts addressed these oversights. IBM Director of Business Analytics Harriet Fryman and BI Research President Colin White gave a thoughtful presentation that rose above the usual chatter.

I remember a few points in particular:

  1. Big data may spin up into a new business, transforming data from a cost center to a profit center. For example, in April, Sears launched a subsidiary big data operation, MetaScale, to serve non-competing retailers. MetaScale’s sole purpose is to help find meaning in big data.
  2. The per-bit value of big data is low. Unlike financial or transactional data, in which every bit is important, big data has “discardability.” Much of it may not be very important. What’s important is the pattern that shows up in it — similar to a snowy TV screen. We may not even notice the “snow” once we recognize a pattern.
  3. Data may be loaded that has no expected value. In data warehousing, businesses have been discouraged from “just loading data for its own sake,” said SAS Vice President of Thought Leadership Jill Dyché, one of two dozen summit attendees. “But in big data, why not just dump it in there and figure out what we can do with it? ‘Because I can’ isn’t a good reason in data warehousing,” she said, “but in big data, it’s perfectly okay. ‘Here’s the data. Go play!’”

All of this managed to rouse my imagination about a once-boring subject, though probably not the way Fryman and White intended.
For one thing, the TV analogy originated with me. Early TV was hardly more than “radio with pictures.” But in the following 10 years, the picture cleared up. Soon we had NBC’s “living color” and consumers hurried home to catch new episodes. Today, we have HD on iPads. It’s been video all along, but each improvement has changed applications profoundly.

Resolution improved, color deepened and techniques advanced — all of which allowed us to see better. The dirty picture that once made us work to see monochrome outlines now seduces, cons, lulls and stimulates. We can’t stop talking about it.

Let’s thank the people who worry about the technology and move on. Our imaginations are more interesting. If TV is a valid analogy, 50 years from now, big data will have startling potential, disappointing choices and occasional, dazzling manifestations of power.

Skeptics still bemoan the wasted potential and they’ll be correct. But now and then, we’ll see big data analogs of “The Sopranos” and Big Bird. Stay tuned.