Think Small

In 1959 a new car was introduced to the American market. In a post-WWII time when the country was still bitter about a war that challenged everyone's peace and belief system, someone had drawn people’s attention by pitching a foreign car whose concept and development could be tied to Hitler himself.

It was not the Nazi identity of the car that attracted everyone’s attention, though. The car shined a light on some fundamental aspects of American life and gave them an alternative … in a small package.

It was the Volkswagen Beetle.

It boasted of slower speed — something a car shouldn't be proud of. But because of its limited speed, it didn't burn as much gas, wear out tires, or need as much maintenance.

For the past few years you might have heard of the phenomenon called big data. I remember reading somewhere that data is the new world currency and the web is its exchange bureau.

Data is all around us. When multiple data sources are merged to create a big picture for causes or a message, it is termed as big data. Big data seems to be a buzzword for most, but for some it’s a glimmer of hope.

Big data helps us understand complex problems by clarifying them with patterns and trends. It is also very complicated, and has set companies looking for people with a relatively new job title called a “data scientist.”

We have seen the merits of big data from understanding user behavior and global patterns to saving lives in developing countries and predicting presidential elections. For most of us who are not data scientists and don’t have the immediate business case to hire one, big data can get daunting and very expensive, to say the least.

Say hello to small data. I learned about small data when I was smitten by the possibilities of big data. I realized that it seemed like an unsung hero contributing to big data’s success.

What is small data? Wikipedia describes small data as “data that is small enough size for human comprehension.” Allen Bonde, vice president of innovation for Actuate, states that "small data connects people with timely, meaningful insights.”

We know that government agencies — federal, state, and local — hold tons of data, both big and small. A lot of times in the pursuit of big data, the nurture of small data is overlooked.

Value Your Data

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if your data is big or small. What matters is its value. Big data success stories are everywhere, but there are many places where small data just fits the bill.

When it's easy to understand, the consumption and comprehension of data is faster. A data set such as geographical locations of most accident spots can make just one thing very clear – it shows exactly the information it holds. When overlapped with other relevant data such as available medical facilities, we start seeing immediate value. The data in itself can seem monolithic but when put in the right context, it can create a huge impact in shining a light on gaps or redundancies.

Democratize Your Data

About 5 years ago, Washington, D.C. held a contest where small data sets were made available, and developers were encouraged to build apps. In just 1 month, about 50 apps were designed for phones, web, and Facebook — something that would have cost the city $2.3 million but only ended up costing $50,000 for the contest prize.

The small data sets made information interactive. Residents could plug in their address and find out many things around them which otherwise would have been a long process no one wanted to go through.

Visualize Your Data

Data in its raw form is hard to comprehend for non-data scientists, and to say the least, it’s boring! When we visualize data, it suddenly makes sense to everyone. If done right, it also shows some obvious and some not-so-obvious patterns that otherwise would not have been noticed in its native form.

Visualizing information helps to tell a story hidden in data. Thankfully there are various tools available that can help achieve this.

Finally, it’s all about the story. State agencies hold valuable information in the form of raw data files. Most of the time these data files are made available to end users in XLS, CVS, or PDF files. A small effort in visualizing this data will make the data user friendly and effective.

If you think your agency can benefit by visualizing your data sets, feel free to contact us and let us help you tell your story!

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