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Are You ‘Puzzled’ By Data? Small Packages May Provide Big Rewards

Have you been working on puzzles lately? COVID-19 has us all at home trying to find things to do to adapt to quarantine living. According to the Washington Post, Americans are stocking up on puzzles with some puzzle makers selling out. With volumes as much as 10 times as normal, Americans are clearly looking to unwind and challenge their brains. Puzzles offer the benefits of memory improvement, problem-solving, visual-spatial reasoning, stress relief, and collaboration; just to name a few. Offered in a variety of sizes; the largest puzzle is made up of 42,000 pieces. When you break the puzzle down by piece and think about how that piece contributes to the whole; that approach is a bit like big data and small data.

Big data describes large volumes of data. Data is structured and unstructured and many times is ignored or lost in business. However, when harnessed and analyzed, big data provides insights to help make better decisions, determine growth opportunities, understand market conditions, and drive strategy. Sounds great right, however, 73% of big data isn’t profitable!

Tricia Wang, a technology ethnographer, works with organizations to help build a bridge to harness big data with what she calls “thick data.” She defines thick data as “data from humans that can’t be quantified. Thick data results from listening to and or observing a small sample size of people that delivers the depth of meaning. The incorporation of thick data helps brands to better understand the human narrative which helps uncover what may be missing in big data models. It was this blending of thick and big data that led Netflix to uncover consumers’ love of binge-watching.

Martin Lindstrom, one of the world's leading business, branding, and culture transformation experts, refers to this phenomenon as “small data.” Small data provides unexpected insight into consumers, ultimately uncovering and identifying small things that lead to bigger revelations. He suggests the next big thing is the small data revolution. Since roughly 2011, Big data has seen a spike in interest in Google Trends hitting peak popularity in 2017. Big data is touted as having the ability to predict the future. However, it is through small or “thick” data that brands are able to uncover what is uniquely human; it’s how Lego avoided bankruptcy.

While we all want to keep things neat and tidy, like Marie Kondo, it’s dangerous to become fixated on numbers or suffering from “quantification bias,” the unconscious belief of valuing the measurable over the unmeasurable. Like a puzzle, the one-piece is an important part of the whole picture. If you fixate on all the mixed pieces in the box, you wouldn’t be able to break it down and create a picture. All the small pieces working together form the overall results. Integrating small “thick” data and big data forms a better overall picture. Each puzzle piece, like small “thick” data, provides context that is lost in the midst of big data. By integrating the context with big data, brands have a better chance of discovering the joys of finishing a puzzle. So, next time you are looking at a puzzle or taking a walk by a tree, think about the small differences and their importance as part of the whole.

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