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What is big data?

Katie Slattery 2 minute read Data quality

Getting a reference in a dictionary is an indicator that something has gone from being niche to near universal. That was the story of 2013, the year the big data became ubiquitous.

Along with other technological words like crowdsourcing, mouseover and e-reader, the Oxford English Dictionary added big data to its historic collection. It describes it as a noun, data that "is of a very large size."

It is a solid and succinct definition, but Gartner's is perhaps more astute: "[It is] the high volume, high velocity and high variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making".

Interestingly though, this explanation is lost on many. Writing in the Guardian recently, the big data expert Siraj Datoo discusses how, in entering the mainstream, the term's use has one) become muddled and two) is somewhat misunderstood.

The result is that while everyone talks about how brilliant it is, how they may invest in it, no-one really knows quite exactly what they are talking about. All they really know is that it has the power to transform processes, ideas and so much more.

Mr Datoo is, however, confident that 2014 will be when people and organisations start to really comprehend what big data is (it is, incidentally, as Gartner sum up in its description).

Once the penny drops, everything that was previously clouded in mystery will unravel and become a lot clearer. The realisation will then be that this is more than a gimmick, something to casually invest in.

Big data can, as has been proved in leading organisations that have long embraced this asset, lead to innovation, set a new bar for competition, enhance quality of service and/or goods, develop sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships with customers and clients and boost productivity.

Not at all bad for a term that has many people feeling slightly confused.