Simon Chadwick talks to Kenn Cukier data editor at The Economist and co-author of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.

How big data will change the way we live and work

SC: If I put five people in a room, I bet I’d get five definitions of what big data actually is. Could you define it and talk about its potential impact on society and marketing?

KC: This is a young trend, so it looks a lot like if we were to talk about cloud computing in 2003 or the World Wide Web in 1994 – we’d have lots of different definitions. That’s a good thing, because when you define isomething, you constrain it. And maybe, like the internet, it’ll never have a hard and fast definition, because if you were to define what the internet was in 2000, it looks different from 2013, with Twitter and Facebook, which are the very infrastructure of the internet these days. So it’s a feature that we have multiple definitions. But there’s one common thread that it would have to have, and that is that there are things we can do with a large body of data that we simply never could do working with smaller amounts.

We collect more information than we did before, and what matters is not the absolute amount of information that we collect – which has been growing for millennia – but the amount relative to the phenomenon that we’re studying. We can now consider something with very nearly all the information on a given topic. We also have more information than before because we’re taking things that were always informational and are now rendering them into a data format that we can store, process, analyse and extract value from.

If my daughter posts on Facebook that she’s going to start off her vacation with a martini, is that data or just noise?
It’s absolutely data. If you’re a beverage company and you found out that many people were starting their vacations with a martini, and that that number was declining, you would want to take steps. Or if you look at the geotags in that Facebook post, and you’re looking at others over a year and found out that, on a month-to-month basis, the number of martinis were declining except for vacations in Latin America, where they are increasing, you would say, “Let’s advertise here. Let’s find out what’s going on in this market that we can cross-apply and learn from when we go to other markets where we’re seeing that decline.” What we might think of as noise becomes a valuable signal to the right person

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