What kind of a resource is data? I think we all give honor to the idea that data is an asset to business and the lifeblood of industry, commerce and government. But I also think that the way we treat data reveals that we see it as a much more lowly commodity. We treat it as an undifferentiated mass to be mined and refined. We treat it as a residue that builds up in our organizations and threatens to bring their mechanisms to a grinding halt. We treat it as by-product of the real business – a trail left by transactions. And we treat it as a product that isn't safe to destroy in case we might need to use it again one day.
Organizations and individuals are drowning in data but starved of intelligence. The more data the world generates, the more frustrating this situation is. How come we don't know our customers better? How come we can't model and mitigate against risks better? How come we can't get different parties collaborating effectively across their domains of expertise? With all this data – and all this “rich data” and “big data” – we ought to be forging ahead on all fronts.
If organizations focused more on defining their questions, then they'd gather less, but more salient, data. They'd be able to distinguish between data that's left behind by transactions and data that's actively sought by the business. They'd be able to construct meaningful retention policies. Above all, they'd be able to put real business values on their data. They'd know what their data was worth and what it cost to acquire. This approach is a more faithful enactment of the idea that data is an asset. Assets are acquired knowingly and retained intentionally.
Now, I agree that in some circumstances one person's data by-product is another person's vital input. One example is a broker gathering data about clients and coverage and sells it back to the underwriters. I suspect this is the kind of collaborative opportunity that will make the promise of big data real.
Data is inert. Information doesn't want to be free – it doesn't want anything. Data does not wander around the net looking for other data to make beautiful music with. Armed with interesting questions, people can get a lot out of data. Let's stop expecting tools to spontaneously deliver data-based breakthroughs. Let's not kid ourselves that staring at spreadsheets and plotting graphs will reveal answers for questions we haven't framed. Let's create those questions, and ask them.