What is Small Data?

Experts say Small Data is the next “big thing” in business intelligence. But what exactly is small data?

If you’ve been following the meteoric growth of “big data,” you know data collection is not going away in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, however, hidden among the headlines extolling the benefits of big data, a new trend seems to be emerging. 

Slowly but surely experts are pointing to small data as the next “big thing” in business intelligence. 

Big Data Vs. Small Data

In the business arena, big data generally refers to a data set so large (think billions of pieces of information) that it cannot be interpreted by humans without the assistance of meg-brain computers. 

Google Maps exemplifies the idea of big data. Google Maps uses the speed of your vehicle–how fast or slow you are driving is interpreted by the location of your GPS–and aggregates (combines) your data with that of all the other drivers on the road. This combined data allows Google Maps to display current traffic conditions; for example, displaying yellow or red streets to indicate slowdowns. 

Additionally, Google then layers present-day information on top of the saved information it has collected and uses that combined data to predict future traffic conditions

Small data on the other hand, is much less complex.  

What is Small Data? 

Small data is a collection of information that is understandable by humans that can be used to inform business decisions. A general rule of thumb says that a small data set can be stored in an Excel file using 1,000 or less cells. 

In a very basic example, small data is the information you collect from your email campaigns. How many subscribers do you have? Where are they located? How many times do they open your newsletters? What are the most common links they click for more information? 

Election Polling is a Classic Case of Small Data 

A larger and more significant example of small data is national election polling. Despite the huge population who vote for elected officials every two to four years, national polls traditionally sample only about 1,500 random participants to determine national sentiment. Here’s a great video by Pew Research Center, a national “fact tank,” that describes how such a small sample can represent a much larger population. 

For the doubtful who point to the misaligned poll results of the 2016 elections as a reason why using small sample sizes may no longer work, here’s another great read by Pew, which points out why poor polling methodology and not the size of the data set is at fault for unexpected poll results. 

Small Data is Not New

Despite today’s trendiness of big and small data, the collection of data is not at all new.

One of the earliest examples of data collection and storage is the Ishango Bone, which the Mathematical Association of America calls this a “mathematical treasure.” (I love that!) Discovered in 1950 in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ishango Bone dates back 20,000 to 25,000 years. The small 10-centimeter device has notches carved onto it that suggest it may have been used as a tally stick, although that is a topic of debate. 

The Birth of the Internet Simplified Data Collection

Naturally, data collection became dramatically simplified with the birth of the internet which was created with the idea of “linking all human knowledge.” 

Nearly 30 years ago, Vice President Al Gore, who famously claimed to have “invented the internet,” gave a compelling speech in front of the International Telecommunications Union, predicting the power of the internet in consolidating data. 

“For almost 150 years, people have aspired to fulfill Hawthorne’s vision–to wrap nerves of communications around the globe, linking all human knowledge,” he said.

Calling the internet (then called the Global Information Infrastructure) “metaphor for democracy itself,” Gore also vowed that “more and more people realize that information is a treasure that must be shared to be valuable.” 

In the nearly 30 years since Gore’s speech, the internet has led to information sharing on an epic level. Experts now estimate that online information is shared to the tune of 2.5 quintillion pieces of data collected daily. 

Wow, talk about big data! 

Does Small Data Work for My Small Business? 

In a word, yes! 

At the very least, any small business or non-profit organization should (dare I say, must) be collecting information of their potential customers, donors and partners. Generally this occurs through building an email list, but it can also be accomplished in other ways–such as tracking visits to a physical store or to a tradeshow booth. 

People have become used to giving out their information to organizations they like and trust. They complete online surveys, they download e-books, they sign up for giveaways, Data collection is a reality, and businesses who aren’t on board with collecting data are missing out. 

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