Thursday, April 7, 2016

What is Big Data? (taught by my favorite cartoons)

Managing big data is a big job! (source)

So, what is big data?

Me:'s data...that's big......

Though not the most eloquent response, it's not wrong. Big data can mean different things to different people, and it varies across industries--some solely connect it to digital data while others don't want to forget the traditional form of data. This Forbes article really gets into the different types, but I'm going to go with a simpler answer: Big data essentially is a really large data set.

We keep hearing about big data whether you're talking about Facebook or the government. And part of that is because almost anything can be used as a data point--from something more subtle like the click of your mouse, to something more obvious like the census.
Why are we all so excited about big data? (source)

So if data has always been around, why are we hearing about it now?

Well, in case you haven't heard, there's this neat-o thing called The Internet, and if you want to be more specific to what's happening now, Web 2.0. With Web 2.0, we have a platform to share information (the Internet) and a bottom-up flow of information where web consumers can contribute more data points than ever before! (*Think about every Netflix show you've binged or movie you've watched and how that contributes to Netflix's recommendations for you...)

Okay, so how do companies use big data?

Again, using the simplest definition: Data is information. Information is knowledge, and knowledge powers many industries. Industries like media, healthcare, and education are all using big data to target audiences, have a stronger impact, and improve their practices. 

Big data can be used for a multitude of purposes, and almost any industry is going to be looking for someone who can demystify the data mines. I'd say that if you're interested in marketing or research, data analysis is definitely something you want up your sleeve--or something you will encounter nonetheless. Also, data journalism is a real buzz word right now, so having data analysis skills as a journalist wouldn't hurt either.
Definitely know what you're doing before playing around with data (source)

How can I get skills useful for data analysis?

For me, data analysis can be as simple as gathering survey responses and analyzing responses for trends, which is what the Tufts Trends project of Tufts Enigma is working on. Through this group, I've gained a lot of perspective on the way data can be used from learning about the Tufts community, to exploring Massachusetts's teen pregnancy stats and abortion access, to visualizing the word analytics of presidential addresses.

However, to avoid a totally shameless plug for this (great!) publication, I want to highlight other ways you can get familiarized with data both at Tufts and on your own:

There are clubs on campus that use big data: While Tufts Enigma loves data, econ and consulting organizations like 180 Consulting do a lot with data analysis for their clients. Tufts Financial Group uses data analysis as well to focus on finance and investment.

• Practice using Excel: I know you've heard it a million times before, but I'm going to say it again: Excel is an extremely helpful tool across disciplines. You can learn from videos, websites, friends, enemies--however you can. There's a million resources out there!

• Intro to Statistics: I know, I know--it's not the most fun class, but knowing the basics will really help for jobs/projects that ask for knowledge in probability, estimations, regressions...(at this point, I don't even know what I'm writing...) There are stats classes that focus on specific social topics like Health Care and Child Development which would offer additional research and analytic skills on a topic that may interest you.

• Research with a professor: If a professor in your field of interest is working on a project, ask if you can be a research assistant. As an assistant, there will definitely be a lot of data entry and number crunching, so a learning opportunity for sure!

I hope this helped demystify big data a little bit. It seems like something that big businesses have a hold over, but in reality, big data's influence and hype comes from the fact that it can come from anywhere and be used by nearly anyone!

Analyzing big data
or goofing off on Facebook...?
Thanks for reading!
Nina Joung
Class of 2018