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Why Your Unstructured Data is a Blessing, Not a Curse

Published
  • May 16 2013, 10:47am EDT

If you’ve opened up a business magazine within the last year, you’ve likely read articles from big data evangelists, proclaiming that unstructured data is a problem that can sink your company’s time, focus and money. 

You know the oft-repeated, dire facts. Rich media data types have exploded in number and in kind. The majority of the data received or produced by your company is messy, unstructured and terribly difficult to manage. The tools that allow anyone to create video, audio and other rich file formats have outpaced the tools we use to capture, store, search and analyze that data. Your employees spend much of their day swimming in a pool of unstructured data.

The data problem is like your garage at home. It’s easy to dump stuff there, but hard to find things later. Since slowing the accumulation of your stuff is nearly impossible, your options seem limited to two choices, both painful. You can begin cleaning your garage, trashing everything except what’s currently being used or obviously valuable. Or you can begin organizing your things before you toss them into the garage, making them easier to retrieve later.

Here’s the problem: Premature destruction of your data is riskier than allowing your data storage bills to grow. It’s impossible for you to determine which pieces of information will not be needed in the coming years. The other problem is that premature organization carries its own risk: the destruction of your employees’ productivity as they try to discern which data is truly valuable.

The alternate solution starts with realizing that your spaghetti tangle of data isn’t the problem you think it is.

Let’s go back to the garage metaphor. What if, among everything you stored in your garage, there was a box of old baseball cards. When you tossed the box in your garage, the cards were worth less than $10, but with the passage of time, now some of your cards are worth $10,000.

Good thing you didn’t try to purge your garage back when the cards were nearly worthless. And good thing you didn’t waste your time organizing the several items that are still worthless.

Now you can focus on finding your cards; the value of your rare collection more than makes up for the cost of storage and search.

The same principle applies to unstructured data. At least some of the media you store will be like those baseball cards: assets that have locked-in, increasing value, just waiting to be uncovered.

Using advanced extraction techniques, you can do the same thing with your unstructured data:

  1. Find the relationship between documents. You can gather documents, spreadsheets, images and other data types that were generated for one project. It doesn’t matter that multiple people created the different files or that the project lasted for two years. A good algorithm can find the needle in the haystack.
  2. Extract metadata. Useful information can be pulled from your unstructured data, like names, dates and locations. There’s no need to have a staff organize the data beforehand.
  3. Redact information. In the days before big data management matured, a request for information in a business required a secretary to take a large black marker and cross out sensitive information before a document could be passed on. This isn’t the case today. Unstructured data tools, can determine what information needs to be hidden.

So don’t get overwhelmed by the sight of your data. And don’t make the mistake of throwing it away before it appreciates in value.
Instead of forcing your business into rigid records management, embrace your unstructured data with the confidence that you’ll one day use it to find valuable insights. This approach saves you from wasting time and effort layering a structure on your data before you know what should be analyzed.

The skyrocketing amount of data your business produces may seem like a curse, but it’s really a blessing. The data you capture today may become a valuable resource for your business tomorrow.

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