Breaking Down Big Data: An Introduction to the Force That’s Changing Our World

Big Data is big news; Harvard Business Review called data scientist the “sexiest job of the 21st century,” and some of the biggest names in higher education are launching programs in the field. Big Data is so popular, in fact, that University of Maryland University College is even launching a for-profit operation to help colleges and universities make better decisions based on analyzing Big Data. But despite the buzz, what Big Data really is, and why it’s important, remains murky. Here’s my quick (and incomplete!) guide to the fundamentals of Big Data.

What Is Big Data?

Data has been around forever; some of the earliest writings we have are recordings of business transactions and taxes collected – in short, data. But Big Data is different. In the past few years, the amount of information we are able to collect and analyze has exploded, thanks to the super computing powers now available to us in, essentially, the palm of our hands. According to this report, 90 percent of the data that exists in the world today was created in the last two years. When I took an intro to statistics class in college, it was the height of sophistication to run a model simulation using basic Excel formulas. Now, middle schoolers are able to use advanced statistical software to develop theories about how the world works.

It’s not just the quantity of data available that defines Big Data, however. Typically, Big Data has three components: volume, velocity and variety. Volume we’ve already discussed above. Velocity means that not only do we have more data than ever, but we’re receiving it faster than ever. In a connected world, we can receive information about who is doing what in almost real time. Use an RFID tag, GPS or the Internet? You’re giving someone, somewhere, data about your daily habits that is being gathered constantly.

Variety refers to the fact that the data we are gathering comes in any number of forms. It’s not just numbers on a spreadsheet; emails, video, and stock market fluctuations are all examples of Big Data that are constantly streaming and need to be organized, stored, and analyzed.

What Jobs Does It Create?

A report by WANTED Analytics focused on four skill sets: data analysis, data acquisition, data mining, and data structures. The report found that demand grew significantly from 2014 to 2015 across a number of job titles related to these skill sets. Computer and information scientists, for example, had a job growth rate of approximately 85% in just 12 months.

It’s not just jobs like information scientist or statistician that are growing. In the same report, the demand for IT project managers grew by 123% while marketing manager job growth demand grew by 84%. While these do not appear to have a direct correlation to Big Data, these jobs do require an analysis of huge volumes of data to make smart business decisions. Marketing managers, for instance, can analyze trends in sales to identify peak times and messaging and tailor a personalized advertising experience to consumers. When I started in marketing, skills in web analytics were highly prized. Now, they are a requirement for the most entry-level jobs we hire for in our marketing department. Big Data isn’t just popular; it’s an essential part of how we do business.

How Does Big Data Impact the Economy?

The good news is, Big Data also means big business. A report from McKinsey Global Institute estimates that Big Data could generate an additional $3 trillion in value every year in just seven industries. Of this, $1.3 trillion would benefit the United States. Big Data can help develop new products, streamline business processes, guide more targeted and effective marketing and speed innovation – all of which lead to a more robust economy.

And that’s not counting the higher quality of life benefits that come from access to Big Data. An employee recently told me that every morning before she leaves the house, she uses Google Maps to determine which of four possible routes she should take to work. Because Google is constantly gathering information about construction, accidents and traffic conditions, she can get real-time information about delays and choose an alternate route. It wasn’t so much that she saved time, she explained (although that was part of her reason). It was that she found she got to work in a much better mood because she hadn’t been crawling along the Interstate, wondering what was happening and why the traffic was so bad. Knowledge gave minimal tangible benefit and immeasurable intangible benefit, resulting in a happier, more productive worker.

What Does Big Data Mean for Higher Education?

But Big Data isn’t just relevant for businesses; it also has an impact on colleges and universities. First, as in any other organization, data can lead to smarter decisions. If institutions know who is choosing their school, what messaging is effective, what programs are popular, even when students log onto online classes the most frequently, all of this information can be used to provide a better, more optimized student experience.

Second, data can be an incredibly powerful marketing tool. I’ve spoken before about the critical importance of tracking outcomes, and conveying those outcomes to potential students. If institutions know, on average, how long it takes graduates to find a job in their field, or how long it typically takes to pay off student loans, or any other number of outcomes, they can use that information to identify, and communicate, a strong brand identity. In a competitive market, being able to prove that your product is better will be crucial for long-term success.

Finally, the rapid rise of Big Data means that there is a skills gap that needs to be bridged. While some programs in Big Data exist, they are nowhere near the market saturation of, say, an MBA program. Whether it’s offering a concentration in Big Data as part of their business degrees or developing stand-alone degree programs, universities have a chance to establish themselves as leaders in one of the most in-demand knowledge areas. And since Big Data is used across any number of industries, the amount of jobs that will require these skill sets is only expected to grow.

At Learning House, we measure and analyze all sorts of data, such as lead conversion rates, retention rates, and student satisfaction rates. We use that data to make adjustments to all areas of our business, including marketing, enrollment, and course design. And I know we are barely scratching the surface of the amount of data available to us. While the quantity of information being collected about us at any given time can feel disconcerting, it also opens up entirely new worlds to us. In higher education, we can be the pioneers settling the vast plains of new industry and new skills, helping to shape the world of tomorrow. How is Big Data changing your world?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: