Is the term ‘big data’ passé?

Is it time to ditch the term “big data”? While it was useful at one point in encapsulating the idea of exploiting huge volumes of structured and unstructured data, many feel it’s past its sell-by date.

On the one hand, said Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer at the HHS, it provides a useful shorthand for referring to things without having to explain it every time. But, at the same time, it “obfuscates the differences in different scenarios.”

“To me, when you start to use an overloaded term like big data, it can add some connotation that I don’t necessarily intend, or that someone else might interpret because they understand the term differently,” he said. “In general, I try to avoid using terms like big data as much as possible.”

The term itself is not necessarily the problem, said Tim Hayes, senior director for customer health solutions at Creative Computing Solutions, Inc., because it helps frame the discussion. But there’s now a lot of hype around the phrase, which can mask the many challenges of moving, mapping and using data that have to be solved before the expectations generated by the hype can be met.

That hype makes big data a very imprecise term for explaining what is happening in areas such as health and medicine, said Stephan Fihn, director of the VHA’s Office of Analytics and Business Intelligence. The previously hyped term in medicine was genomics, he said, and though it’s had a dramatic influence in certain areas such as cancer, in his day-to-day practice it’s so far had no real effect.

“So, if you talk about big data, at the same time you also have to be very clear about where big data can help (in medicine),” he said. “I prefer to talk about high-level analytics rather than big data, and about streamlining and making more accurate what we do.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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