Paul North, founder and MD of Illuminis, begins his series of vlogs on Small Data. In this vlog he helps us understand just how big Big data is and how Small Data has the potential to revolutionise SME businesses.


Hi and welcome to the first of our video blogs on Small Data. I’m Paul North the founder of Illuminis

Yes Small Data, not Big Data. We’ve all heard about Big Data, I think we need to hear more about Small Data, I’m going to tell you why and in a series of videos hopefully get you to think about Small Data in your own business.

Let’s just for a moment side-track and think about what does Small Data really mean, how big is that and how small is that and so on. I think it’s useful to understand actually how big, big data is. We have this issue that every few years we suddenly get a new term in the computer world. When I first started kilobytes were amazing things, and then suddenly megabytes were out and boy they were great weren’t they and then not long after that we had gigabytes. Now we’re looking at hard disks with Terabyte storage. There’s another layer up which is Petabytes which is where we get into the whole big data series.

These terms just come into our language and we just bandy them about as if they’re just another extension of the next bit. It used to be A, now it’s B, now it’s C. It’s very hard for us as humans to understand growing large powers of numbers, we don’t really get how that works and I’m reminded of an example I was given at the time of the financial crash a few years ago.

A reporter on the radio was talking about the issue that last year we were talking about the millions of pounds that people owed, and now suddenly we’re talking about the billions of pounds that people owe – as if that was just a bit more really.

He gave an example that I thought was really helpful in understanding the way these powers work. The example was if you owed some money and you paid that money back at a pound a second, how long would it take for these different things.

So if you have a thousand pounds, a kilo-pound if you like, that’s going to take you about a quarter of an hour to pay back at a pound a second. But if you had a millions pounds, a thousand thousand pounds, a Mega-pound, that’s going to take you eleven and a half days to pay back, which is quite a bit longer.

That’s your million, let’s go to a billion pounds, a thousand million pounds, a Giga-pound, that’s not going to take you 11 days to pay back, that’s going to take you 32 years! That’s the difference of the way these things work. Now if we follow that extension up in terms of the data thing that we’re looking at, and we get to this place called Peta, Peta pounds which is what big data is measured in these days, that will take you back or forward, whichever way you look at it, thirty million years to pay that back. That’s the time long before man ever existed on the earth, the time that butterflies were just beginning to flutter about the place.

It’s really hard for us to understand these things but these are huge numbers. We’re going to bring it back, we’re going to be talking in small data about things in the Mega and Giga range, which are still pretty big.

So for most of us in the SME space, the amount of information and data we hold in the systems behind our business, to us can seem really big and daunting, but in the world compared to Big Data the amount of stuff we hold is really tiny.

But we often don’t do enough with it, and we certainly don’t realise all the potential that there is available to us as a business to drive it forward if only we could get to that data that we hold. There’s a big revolution going on at the moment with Big Data, but an interesting article by Rufus Pollock, who was then the founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation back three or four years ago, talked about the potential revolution of Small Data.

The analogy that he used was in the early days of computing there were large mainframe computers held by just a few companies that could make a really big difference, indeed probably helped to get man to the moon. It was only when the microcomputer, the personal computer came out and suddenly the distributed use of all that power became available that the real revolution happened and computing took off in away that’s completely changed the world.

His contention is that while Big Data may be good for the big stuff, when people really start to get their hands on their small data that same kind of revolution can happen.

I completely agree with him.

In my experience, lots of SME businesses hold what we think of as being large amounts of information and just too large, even at that size for us to really deal with.

In his original article, Rufus Pollock gives a definition of Small Data as the amount of data that can be comfortable stored and analysed on a single high-end laptop. It’s as a good a definition as any.

If I think of a typical SME manufacturer or distributor that we’re working with, let’s say they’re turning over 10-15 million pounds, they’ve got a nice fancy accounting system that looks after all of their daily transactions, all of the stock movements around the business, selling to hundreds of people, thousands of things and so on.

Their complete amount of data in that kind of system for the last ten years would fit on my high-end laptop many times over. Indeed, I reckon I could get 5 or 6 of the data sets from those businesses on my phone. So, although the word is small, I think you’ll appreciate that with the amount of information that’s in there, that’s quite a lot for us.

If we can just get inside that data and get the insights that we need from it that will drive our business, will drive our profitability, look for those hidden gems, that’s going to make the difference. That’s what excites me, that’s what I do this for an I want to share with you over the next few videos some ideas on what you might look for in your data. Things we’ve done perhaps with other clients that I think “do you know other people might find that useful, maybe they just haven’t thought about it, maybe they just don’t have the way to deal with it”.

I want you to think about the Small data in your business. What are the potential benefits from really getting inside it and how can you use that to really drive your profitability and your business forward.

See you next time.