Explaining Big Data to the Mother-in-law

I should have seen it coming, but I was caught cold… damn my lack of focus. I was preoccupied making sure my kids behaved and using my mashed potato to support the next layer of Christmas dinner on my plate. My Mother-in-law ambushed me over the table from behind the Brussel sprouts with a question that instantly sobered me from my head fog of Prosecco… “So Andrew what is this Big Data thingy?”

Why did she ask this? Well the background is that in December I left my well paid, enjoyable job that provides a blanket of middle class comfort to her daughter and adorable three granddaughters… to well, start a new company with my long term colleague Julian. Having proudly given the family a pre-dinner screening of my new website, my Mother-in-law really wanted to know if this Big Data thing I was pinning my hopes on was going to deliver and if the next 12 months of Aldi and Daddy working late was going to be worth it.

To be honest the whole family all chimed in which includes a seasoned IT project manager, an accountant, graduates etc. basically nobody understood what on earth I was doing and what is meant by Big Data. I tried the “it’s just computers” fob off, but it was knocked back – they wanted to know if I was going to be losing the family house next year!. This was serious, I was woefully unprepared but here was my attempt at explaining it to my Mother-in-law (Madeline).

Companies have always used data and information to help run and make decisions about their business. Traditionally the only data available to do this was neatly inputted into a database (store) by a person. For example, Valerie in accounts using an accounting application, If she typed in an invoice number it would be stored in a nice structured way so the company could easily run reports and get access to it. Over the last few years the quantity and way the data is created has changed dramatically to the point that of all the data existing in the world today 90% of it was generated only in the last two years. The data is generated in much larger volumes by machines, sensors and social media (with a lot more people are using Twitter and Facebook etc. on their mobile phones).

This data explosion is great for businesses because if they can glean valuable information from it, it allows them to gain an advantage over competitors. The big problem is that the data isn’t neatly structured and there are big volumes. This makes it very slow and expensive to store, process and analyse using traditional technologies. A good example, is an airline, they could use data from sensors on engines to reduce fuel costs or even analyse social media data to identify any problems their customers are complaining about. Reducing costs and increasing customer satisfaction.

Therefore, this change in the amount of data and the different way in which it is being created is really what I mean by big data. My company (Onomi) will help businesses to make the new and old technology work together, so our customers can make better decisions and build new applications for their customers that use this new kind of data.

To be honest I‘m not sure if I managed to get Madeline to really understand, but I’ve bought myself a few extra weeks. At which point I’ll try the next Jedi mind trick using Hadoop and a deck of playing cards analogy… I’ll let you know how I get on.

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