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How Big Data Tells a Story

July 24th, 2014 by - 1,954 views

Associations with Big Data tend to be pretty clinical – it’s often considered a tool to make more accurate scientific statements, identify trends in social media and news, and develop products by gauging customer response. In other words, the cloud computing tool was largely viewed as a shortcut to making money and creating new offerings for the public, whether that was a breakthrough medication, a new way to communicate wirelessly, or something the world had never even heard of. A less common but equally fascinating use of the technology, however, is as a storytelling mechanism – a capability that can be the most powerful use of all.

As has been the truth in past generations, science and storytelling should coexist in order to remain powerful, a fact that rings true when considering the developing uses of big data.

As in previous generations, science and storytelling need to coexist to remain powerful, a fact that rings true when considering the developing uses of Big Data.

The value of storytelling
The concept of storytelling and the value of its teller is a tradition ingrained in basic human culture that has existed for thousands of years. In generations past, before the written word and widespread publishing of books and magazines, storytellers would enthrall listeners with memorized speeches in the manner of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and Homer’s “Odyssey.” A recent piece on the Fast CoCreate blog detailed some of the finer points of this tradition.

“Results repeatedly show that our attitudes, fears, hopes, and values are strongly influenced by story,” the source stated. “In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than writing that is specifically designed to persuade through argument and evidence.”

These statements have plenty of evidence to back them up – stories sell. The movie and publishing industry bring in billions every year, and even our most prevalent social media tools, especially Facebook, are designed to tell the “story” of a user’s life online by highlighting what events and posts have received the most attention. This is just one example of mass data being boiled down to a basic storyline, but it’s a valuable one. Even Snapchat, the ever-present application that is famous for showing a user an image for a few seconds that disappears shortly thereafter, has introduced the “Snapchat Stories” feature that lets users create a narrative from their brief messages.

How Big Data tells a story with accuracy and impact
There’s no doubt that the science behind Big Data is inescapable, but some data scientists have struggled to transform this information into a palatable story for the everyday user to consume. Jeff Bladt and Bob Filbin, data scientists for the activist charity-driven website Dosomething.org, wrote about this process, with which they’re still constantly experimenting, in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review.

“We’re tasked with transforming data into directives,” they explained. “Good analysis parses numerical outputs into an understanding of the organization. We ‘humanize’ the data by turning raw numbers into a story about our performance.”

Their insights made it clear that Big Data is the “what”; however, those making business decisions and products based on the data are the “why.” As such, many companies have been hard at work developing the tools necessary to take the information being collected and translate it into something useful and compelling to sell. This move will undoubtedly make the services offered from the cloud computing system more likely to stand the test of time.

Bladt and Filbin recommended that when developing an analysis of Big Data for a client, professionals should only sync information directly relevant to the business. In addition, they should implement a user-friendly visual presentation such as the popular infographic that is both attractive to the eye and informative.

As in previous generations, science and storytelling need to coexist to remain powerful, a fact that rings true when considering the developing uses of Big Data.

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