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The benefits of unstructured data

By Stern Curator on 27/06/16 1:10 PM

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You’re probably well aware that ‘big data’ is, well, big. Everywhere you turn the talk seems to be about big data, or more correctly data analytics or data analysis – the science and technology of extracting meaningful insights and intelligence from vast repositories of data.

But there’s two kinds of big data: structured and unstructured.

Structured data has been around since the dawn of IT. It’s the data that’s neatly stored in files where each file has many records and each record many fields, but with each field containing exactly the same kind of data and referencing the same kind of entity: the name of a customer, the date of the customer’s last purchase, the value of that purchase, for example.

But there’s another kind of data that’s becoming a big part of big data: unstructured data. IDC estimates that 60 to 80 percent of new data is unstructured. And if you want to get a sense of just how big unstructured data is, try doing a Google news search on “unstructured data” and sorting the results by date: we found 100 items in the ten days from 4 to 14 January!

Of the many articles in that short period looking at unstructured data, this one describes unstructured data as “every document, email, presentation file or customer survey; every piece of data that doesn’t have a specific ‘home’ or purpose that is easy to articulate.”

Importantly it adds: “While it’s tempting to dismiss this information as mere runoff, the inevitable over-wash of structured data, there is massive potential waiting to be tapped.”

In the healthcare industry alone, according to one report, there is an explosive growth of unstructured clinical data, and healthcare firms are deploying solutions to use this data for many functions, such as to retrieve patient's history, to reduce the readmission of the patients for particular diseases, and to generate reminders for the physicians.

There is also massive potential for misinterpretation, the article warns. “Unstructured data is, by nature, outside the existing categorisation system used by your business. 

Tapping unstructured data, therefore, comes with inherent risk since the inherent value of any piece of information is subject to interpretation. If your company assigns high value to a skewed survey, for example, any insight based on this data may be flawed, as well, and following this insight could be costly.” 

But there are other risks associated with lack of understanding of unstructured data. In this article Perry Dickau, director of product management at storage technology vendor, DataGravity, says: “As companies become more aware of the vast amounts of information they're storing, they're simultaneously recognising how little they know about what that information means and how ill-equipped they are to manage it effectively.”

What he’s concerned about is less the fact that, because companies don’t know what they have they not making full use of it, but the fact that they don’t realize the security risks they face.

However, ignorance in and of itself is a business risk. As this article points out “Organisations that realise value from their data assets faster through advanced analytics will quickly surpass their competition.”

The benefits of unstructured data

The solution, it says, is machine learning. “Unlike traditional analysis, machine learning thrives on growing datasets. The more data fed into the system, the more it can learn and apply the results to higher quality insights.”

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