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Cutting Big Data Down to Size

Rufus Pollock

It’s always a pleasure to run across a well thought-out contrarian point of view, and Dr. Rufus Pollock provides just that in a recent blog post entitled “Forget Big Data, Small Data is the Real Revolution.”

Pollock is the founder and co-director of the Open Knowledge Foundation headquartered in Cambridge England. He casts a cold eye on all the feverish activity promoting Big Data, including Big Data week, which is currently underway (see the earlier Inside-Big Data story).

But the discussions around big data miss a much bigger and more important picture: the real opportunity is not big data, but small data. Not centralized “big iron”, but decentralized data wrangling. Not “one ring to rule them all” but “small pieces loosely joined.”

He points out that the real revolution is the “mass democratization” of the means of accessing, storing and processing data.  This allows us to tap into a distributed ecosystem made up of small data.  Size is not what matters – the point is having the right data at hand that’s needed to deal with whatever issues we might be facing at the time.

For many problems and questions, small data in itself is enough. The data on my household energy use, the times of local buses, government spending – these are all small data,” Pollock writes. “Everything processed in Excel is small data. When Hans Rosling shows us how to understand our world through population change or literacy he’s doing it with small data. And when we want to scale up the way to do that is through componentized small data: by creating and integrating small data “packages” not building big data monoliths, by partitioning problems in a way that works across people and organizations, not through creating massive centralized silos. This next decade belongs to distributed models not centralized ones, to collaboration not control, and to small data not big data.”

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