Monday, August 19, 2013

The Three P's of Big Data: Plumbing, Payment, and Politics

In a panel discussion at Georgetown Law School, I discussed some of the barriers to actually using data, at scale, in a large organization, to drive change.  I lump these barriers into three categories, which I call The Three P's: Plumbing, Payment, and Politics.  We're a long way from being able to just throw all the information into a computer, ask it a question, and get an answer out, and the things that stand between here and there are my raison d'etre.  This weekend, The Sunday Times dipped its toe into Big Data commentary, with a contrarian take titled Is Big Data an Economic Big Dud?, in which the author asks, bluntly, What's taking so Goddamn long?

[T]he economy is, at best, in the doldrums and has stayed there during the latest surge in Web traffic. The rate of productivity growth, whose steady rise from the 1970s well into the 2000s has been credited to earlier phases in the computer and Internet revolutions, has actually fallen. The overall economic trends are complex, but an argument could be made that the slowdown began around 2005 — just when Big Data began to make its appearance.

This is a worthy topic of discussion, but the article is a mish-mash, lumping things like streaming video, text messaging, Cisco, and analytics companies under the title "Big Data", and asking why this "Big Data" hasn't made an impact on the economy (while tacitly admitting that the economy has been in such flux since 2005 that asking what the impact of any particular development is amounts to asking why the wind direction didn't change when you passed gas.) In some sense, the very fact that the New York Times has covered it means that it may have already peaked, because once the Sunday Times becomes aware of a technological development, it's reached the level that geriatric crossword-puzzle enthusiasts might actually be dimly aware of it. Witness:

Other economists believe that Big Data’s economic punch is just a few years away, as engineers trained in data manipulation make their way through college and as data-driven start-ups begin hiring.

(Emphasis mine.)  I don't know where the Times gets their information about high tech hiring, but judging from this sentence, it's probably from the classifieds page of the New York Times.

Paul Krugman, as usual, has a more nuanced and interesting set of questions:

OK, we've been here before; there was a lot of skepticism about the Internet too — and I was one of the skeptics. In fact, there was skepticism about information technology in general; Robert Solow quipped that “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”. But here’s another instance where economic history proved very useful. Paul David famously pointed out (pdf) that much the same could have been said of electricity, for a long time; the big productivity payoffs to electrification didn't come until after around 1914.
Why the delays? In the case of electricity, it was all about realizing how to take advantage of the technology, which meant reorganizing work. A steam-age factory was a multistory building with narrow aisles; that was to minimize power loss when you were driving machines via belts attached to overhead shafts driven by a steam engine in the basement. The price of this arrangement was cramped working spaces and great difficulty in moving stuff around. Simply replacing the shafts and belts with electric motors didn’t do much; to get the big payoff you had to realize that having each machine powered by its own electric motor let you shift to a one-story, spread-out layout with wide aisles and easy materials handling.

I think it's reasonable to suggest that Big Data™ writ large may never (and probably won't) have the same impact on the world as electricity or The Intarwebz.  But the question of what may be slowing its impact is something on which I am well qualified to comment.  I will make more extensive posts about this in the coming weeks and months, but in terms of the three P's, the plumbing pieces are still in their infancy, and are hugely labor intensive: getting data from unstructured sources, like documents, images, and video is nearly impossible without significant cost and data-specific tuning.  And, even making full use of structure data (databases, XML, etc) is painful because of the amount of context and integration required.

More importantly, though, the politics of data-driven decision making are subject to the politics of any paradigm-shifting change, particularly ones that have the impact to show that the Chief Executive Officer is wearing no clothes.  Large organizations have been Doing It Wrong™ for so long now that convincing them to take the implications of their data seriously is an uphill battle against politics and entrenched interests.  In theory, the market should correct and allow data-driven decisions to lead if they provide a competitive edge.  But in practice, pop-culture management books and pop-science provide managers with confirmation bias that their gut instincts are all they need to run a giant organization, data be damned.  And, even when a CEO wants to make a large scale change, he has to push it through using hired thugs just to get any traction.

Essentially, we're still at the infancy of the Big Data movement, both in terms of its ease of use, and its cultural adoption.  The potential to monetize how we use data for decision making is huge, but there are still significant obstacles to leveraging its potential.


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