By the Numbers: Big Data, Big Books

By Thursday Review staff | published Sunday, January 12, 2014 |

Have you ever signed-in to your Amazon account (or any other of your major retail or service accounts online) and wondered why they placed so many wonderful suggestions for you right there at the top of the page? Scroll down a click or two, and there are even more—books, movies, music, anything—tempting-looking purchases. It’s as if you walked into a major retail store and found every item you wanted or needed right there on the first two or three rows of shelves, and even had a store employee waiting right there—coupons in hand—to help you load your cart. It’s eye candy, custom made for you.

This is, we know, no accident. And it’s not magic.

Companies like Amazon, Travelocity, and Kayak—and especially services like Google and Yahoo—make no secret of their ability to know you better, perhaps, than you know yourself. They will place that swag right where you will see it, because they don’t want you to waste time wandering through the aisles of their vast virtual store when they can read your mind, and then retrieve your credit and debit preferences before you even get to the cash register.

The multi-billion dollar business of advertising and marketing got smarter over much of the last 60 years, moving from a shotgun approach—ads more-or-less thrown out there with little or no understanding as to their effectiveness—to greatly improved targeting throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The fragmentation of television in the cable age helped marketers more accurately find their niche, even as the slow demise of the newspaper business model drove some advertisers from newsprint altogether. Ads got smarter, sexier, sharper—on TV, on radio, in magazines. And the tools to narrowcast got better.

But it was still often a gamble of sorts, based on surveys—scientific or otherwise—and a variety of time-honored measuring systems, such as Nielsen Ratings, Arbitron and a variety of other monthly, quarterly and yearly reports. Based largely on samples and small harvests of numbers from among the larger population, it required care and patience and lot of screening and editing. The statisticians who complied the data were generally good, but it could be slow and expensive. Mistakes would be made, resources and money wasted.  The same kind of sampling arithmetic applied to a hundred other industries: insurance, medicine, pharmaceuticals, banks and lenders, state and local government agencies, even fast food.

Big data has changed all that. Smart companies (and smart governments) now have the ability, with the proper tools and the right set of eyeballs, to quickly see patterns in the chaos and the shape of buyers even in the camouflage. With many millions more people every year shepherding themselves into the digital stream, more information about all those people—as individuals—is out there, for better, or for worse.

Furthermore, where guesswork and statistics once merged to make predictions, often using only relatively small numerical samples, data can help manufacturers build safer cars and trucks, help local governments better understand which buildings are most at risk for fires, and help doctors more closely track the spread of disease.

"The internet has shaped how humanity communicates," write Kenneth Culkier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger in Foreign Affairs, "Big data is different: it marks a transformation in how society processes information. In time, big data might change our way of thinking about the world."

Several new books, released just within the past 12 months, take a close look at the craft and science of analytics may forever change forever the way we approach advertising, marketing, or business trends. Looking to grab some Big Data nutrition and chow down? Here are a few of the notable books on the emerging science:

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think; Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. This books scores well with those who read it for its valuable overview of what “big data” means (the term has been widely used and abused by the media of late) and for its explanations of how big data can be used to intervene in positive ways in business and in government. The downside: some critics say that the book lags in its full understanding of the latest tools and resources out there, and cites few recent examples of big data’s successes and failures.

Big Data, Big Analytics: Emerging Business Intelligence and Analytic Trends for Today’s Business; Michael Minelli, Michele Chambers, Ambiga Dhiraj. Newly released, this one is likely to be the standard text on the topic for the near future, and at $49.95 (some online retailers have it priced as low as $31 in hardback). The book gets mixed reviews (we plan to review fully sometime this spring): the negatives seem to convey a book rushed to press with hundreds of typos and grammatical failings, poetic, perhaps, for a book centered on “data” but not “content,” and other complaints include not enough tractionable, on-the-ground advice; the positives come from those who did find the book useful, especially for business purposes.

The Small Think Big Book: How Today’s Businesses Are Using the Web to Win; Arjan Dijk and Sandeep Menon. The consensus on this book is that it is “lighter” reading than most on the topic, but, it also has actionable advice and ready-made tools for making data a part of the business model. This book may be especially useful to small and medium-sized businesses since much of what is illustrated here can be grasped easily and put to quick use. Paperback, and only about $12 through most online book retailers. (Amazon lists it for $11.39).

Have you read a recent book on technology, business, social media or the web? If you have the gift of gab, would you like to review it here? Just send us an email at, or find us on Facebook, Tumblr, Linked-In or Google+