Ill-Defined Body by Wires In The Walls
Ill-Defined Body, a photo by Wires In The Walls on Flickr.

People love talking about Big Data. It’s often thrown out like a life preserver to show you’re hip and with it in the research sphere. “Let’s talk about Big Data!” gets you some knods with lots of different groups – Informatics, Computer Science, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Digital Humanities, the list goes on. Too often though I feel people throw it out there like old people (read: me) throw out the term dubstep. We don’t really get the genre, but we know it might win us some cool points with the kids. (Thought it probably also makes use sound really out of touch.)

Today I went to a talk on campus What Big Data Can Tell You and Why It Matters. The speaker Patrice Koehl is from UC Davis’ Genomics group, so his background is working with genomic big data. He described the history of how the Human Genome Project helped push innovation for sequencing and creating vast amounts of data, but that it takes more time to process and analyse than before. (More data, more problems.) Ultimately he argues better training, with a focus on interdisciplinary partnerships, will be important for the field to progress. He’s not wrong.

One of the things I really took away from the talk was in one of the opening slides. The 3 I’s of Big Data:

  • Immediate – in the sense that you need to do something about it now
  • Intimidating – what if you don’t?
  • Ill-defined – what is it, anyway?

These three I’s really capture a lot of my issues with the calls to get on the Big Data train. Reminds me of the librarian cliche “Innovate or Die”. I plan on bringing up these points next time I’m in a talk with my panicked colleagues. We need to slow down and answer those questions.

The other great point I took away from the talk was something Koehl said in the end:
Big Data is complexity. Big Data is source of challenges. Big Data is a source of dreams.

It reminded me of the song “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. What’s the point if we’re not dreaming?

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