08/23/2016 02:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big Data vs. Little Data

All the attention, hype and money is pouring into Big Data. It's the way to get big budgets, lots of attention, and big salaries. Delivering real value to normal human beings is so mundane an aspiration that it is beneath the dignity of those involved with something IMPORTANT like Big Data to notice.

That's where Little Data comes in. If you want practical benefits that can be enjoyed this year or next that improve the lives of normal human begins, then you should start putting effort into Little Data.

Little Data and Big Data

The most important thing about Big Data is not that it's big. It's usually not so big! What's important is that in the world of Big Data, what you mostly think about is Data and the fact that it's Big. It's a data-centric perspective, with all sorts of specialized software, equipment and knowledge. It's also a faith -- everyone involved is certain that wonderful things will soon pour out of the Big Data pipeline -- once we get this, that or the other thing worked out. Of course, we can't be sure what those wonderful things are -- that's what's so great about Big Data, it affects everything!

Big Data has gotten so Big that it has become a ripe target for parody, as in a recent Dilbert cartoon:

The most important thing about Little Data is not that it's little. Although it almost always is. What's important is that you mostly think about the people your organization serves, where and how they waste their time or get frustrated, and how to use computers and data to make things better for them. The problem is first identified, and then the relevant data is rousted up, organized, and made part of the solution.

Here's the big problem: all the money, attention and prestige go to Big Data. Little Data? I suspect you've never heard of it before. Getting involved with it is not likely to be a career or prestige-advancing event.

Little Data examples

Here's an example of "pure" Little Data I encountered. I use USAA as my bank. I needed to send a wire. I went on-line to remind myself what the requirements were.

I gathered the necessary data and called the number they gave. The result of calling was a blizzard of Little Data efficiency and convenience.

The first thing I heard was "I see you're calling from a number in your profile, David. Would you please say or enter your PIN code?" That's nice. It's a feature they've had implemented for a while. Saves time and makes me feel like they know me, even though I know it's all just software.

After I entered the PIN code, I heard "I see you've been on the USAA website looking at wire transfers. Would you like to send a wire today, David?" Wow. Would I like to send a wire. WOULD I?? I sure would like to send a wire, USAA, thanks for putting two plus two together to make my interaction with you just that much more convenient. So I said "yes."

Then I was immediately transferred to a wire transfer specialist, who already knew who I was and the wires I had already sent. Since I was sending a large wire, she went into a couple further security checks, and away we went.

This is a single small example. It's not game-changing or earth-shaking by itself. But imagine if all organizations looked at things from their customer's point of view and found ways they could save time and increase convenience for them, like USAA obviously does. Little Data can change the world, very much for the better.

Big Data Suppresses Little Data

Every institution is surrounded by an extended thicket of barriers to customer service and efficiency that could easily be flattened by Little Data efforts. In most institutions, the thicket of barriers is ignored, while all the attention goes to the vague, never-ending moonshot of Big Data. The generally excellent Mount Sinai hospital system in New York is a good example.

Mount Sinai has "mounted" a major effort in Big Data. They have been named one of the world's top ten innovative companies in Big Data!

Mount Sinai is the focus of a feature story in the New York Times promoting one of the many new books on Big Data.

The story leads with a profile of a new hire at Mount Sinai, "Dr. Data."

Dr. Data leads a team of Big Data specialists working on important things that will transform medicine and health care! Soon! Well, someday, anyway.

Meanwhile, what about the many patients who have problems now and are being treated at Mount Sinai now? Can we squeeze a bit of Little Data goodness out to help them? Apparently not.

I've described some of my personal encounters with the lack of common-sense efficiency at Mount Sinai here and elsewhere. You can read about the important appointment I had with the specialist to determine whether life-threatening potential side effects of the cancer drugs I was taking were ramping up. The appointment was confirmed by email and robo-call. I travel a couple hours to get there. I check in. So sorry, the doctor is on vacation! More details here.

More recently, I needed a refill for a prescription by this specialist. These are the drugs that I have proven are wrongly recorded in my Mt Sinai EMR, though I'm confident that my cardiologist somehow, somewhere has the correct data -- she's on top of things. I tried the on-line system to get the refill. Fail. I got on the phone, holding more than 20 minutes before being cut off. I tried the phone again later, talked with one human briefly, but was eventually dropped after more than 30 minutes. No robo-voices telling me that I was in a queue, that the wait was approximately whatever; nothing.

What could I do? Fortunately, I'm signed up for primary care at OneMedical, so I emailed (!!!) my doctor, explained the issue and sending the data, and the next day my refills were waiting for me at my pharmacy. OneMedical is an example of a health organization that puts effort into Little Data. Mount Sinai apparently thinks that putting effort into trivial issues like mine, whose fixes don't result in fawning newspaper feature stories, are beneath their dignity. All the effort needs to go to Big Data!


I like numbers, data, analytics and computers. I firmly believe they can be wielded to make our lives better. But while we're mounting forever-in-the-future moonshots with Big Data, it would be great if we could have a concerted effort to deploy Little Data to improve everyone's lives in the here-and-now. After all, whatever healthcare-transforming wonder Big Data comes up with, you're still going to need patients showing up to appointments with people who are actually there!