Stories about revolution tend to look the same: an oppressed, disenfranchised population coalesces around an inspiring idea. They organize and overthrow their rulers to establish a new, hopefully better organization based on the ideas that inspired them in the first place. While the historical realities of revolutions are more complicated, there must be something to the mythologized version I outlined- that story has shown incredible longevity.

A lot has been said recently about the “big data revolution”. We’ve written books about it, and insightful articles about those books. We blog about it and teach it in our Universities. In June 2014 we learned “SNS Research estimates that Big Data investments will account for nearly $30 Billion in 2014 alone. These investments are further expected to grow at a CAGR of 17% over the next 6 years.” But, I hold to the belief that if you cannot define something, it does not exist. So, like any current movement in technology or industry, we are still defining what the big data revolution is.

Case in point: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier wrote “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think” just last year. In it, they point out “there is no rigorous definition of big data.” They speculate the idea of Big Data originally came about because there is so much data out there now: agreed. Anyone can see that. Data streams are coming in from phones, computers and wireless sensors at an amazing pace and we haven’t even breached ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things.

So that’s the situation we’re in: an ever-expanding market we cannot fully define. But, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier are more helpful than just pointing out that we don’t have a good definition: they offer their own. They write “big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationships between citizens and governments, and more.”

I love that definition, particularly the first part, where it talks about the “things one can do.” That language casts big data as more than just a computing explosion but as an enabling, empowering force. Gary King, who heads up Harvard’s Institute for Quantative Social Science, agrees. He says “The big data revolution is that now we can do something with the data… The revolution lies in improved statistical and computational methods, not in the exponential growth of storage or even computational capacity” (as summarized in Jonathan Shaw’s 2014 article for Harvard Magazine.)

But notice something here: both Mayer-Schönberger/Cukier’s definition and King’s thoughts are very open with who could take part in big data. Nowhere does it say “big data refers to the things data analysts can do” or “the big data revolution is that now managers and data scientists can do something with the data….” No, I like to think they used words like “one” and “we” as inclusive pronouns. In other words the real heart, the central idea of the data revolution is not just the raw data: its the tools enabling anyone to use it.

We have an opportunity here at the beginning of big data, while the definition is still fluid and expanding: we can still decide what the revolution is, what it’s central ideas are and what the world will look like after. But, whatever definition we eventually land on needs to include the “set of technologies that capture, store, manage and analyze large and variable collections of data to solve complex problems” (as articulated in that June market report.) Accessible, easy to understand operational intelligence and visual analytics tools are an integral part of the big data revolution. Can we imagine what would happen if anyone could use big data to solve complex problems? We would enter another renaissance, and maybe make good on revolution’s promise of new, better future.

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