The Big Limitations of Big Data

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Arguably, the biggest story of the summer was the revelation of how our government is collecting all manner of data on private citizens. And while this isn’t necessarily surprising, it is still somewhat concerning.

But I think a bigger story that is playing out both at the national security level and at nonprofits is the exposure of the limitations of big data. And that is collecting the data is only the first step. Big data without actionable insights is meaningless. Yet we tend to focus on the data infrastructure and not the analysts.

Today on NPR I heard that a new NSA data farm near Salt Lake City is opening with over 1 million square feet of server space to capture our every move. But how helpful is this?

For example, last week Aaron Alexis, the shooter at the Naval Shipyard in DC, left a trail of data points that demonstrated he was a distressed individual in need of help (or at least banned from buying guns). Yet no one connected those data points until after the fact.

I see this on the nonprofit side as well, and though the consequences are not as deadly. Still there are lots of missed opportunities. In my 20-years of being in this business I can’t begin to estimate how many times I have heard a client say: “we need a new database.” Not once have I ever heard them say: “we need to spend more time analyzing the data we already have.”

Our counsel is before you spend six or seven figures on a new database, make sure you are analyzing the data you do have to its fullest capabilities.

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