Why Big Data Is A Big Deal for Lawyers
By David J. Walton
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said that “big data” will have a bigger impact than the Internet. Con- sider how the Internet completely changed our lives. It’s hard to imagine anything, let alone the vague concept of
“big data,” having that type of impact.
Yet, if you have read any article the past
year about a legal technology issue, then
you have undoubtedly heard about big
data. There’s still a lot of confusion about
big data, its power, its potential, and what
it means for lawyers.
The first step to understanding big
data is to define it. Many people think big
data just means a lot of data. That’s only
partially true. It is generally accepted that
big data “refers to data sets whose size is
beyond the ability of typical database
software tools to capture, store, manage,
Yet, at its core, big data is really about
data analytics—sophisticated algorithms
that are being applied to incomprehensibly
large volumes of data. We create a stagger-
ing amount of data each day. For several
years, computer scientists have been de-
veloping more and more powerful ways to
harness the incredible volume of data for
all sorts of purposes, such as marketing,
medical research and business intelligence.
This is not a recent phenomenon. The big
data revolution is a quiet one. It has been
going on for years, right under our noses.
Every time we visit a website or send
an email, it is likely that some computer
somewhere is tracking our movements
and adding to a database that contains
our online profile. Researchers use these
databases, through highly complex math-
ematical algorithms, to find patterns in
data so they can predict future buying
preferences and decisions based on our
on-line activities. This information is
then used to sell highly focused and effec-
tive advertising. This type of data analyt-
ics has been going on for years, but many
of us have been completely oblivious to it.
Big data has become today’s next phe-
nomenon because the science behind
data analytics has continued to grow and
is now being used to in numerous areas
of our lives—more than just advertising.
At the same time, our ability to analyze
data has improved, the amount of data
we create is increasing dramatically, and
our ability to store, process and transfer
that data has improved tremendously. We
have so much data about so many differ-
ent aspects of the world, and we now have
the capacity to store and collect it. This is
a dream for big data researchers.
They are figuring how to combine and
review these immense data sets together.
The result is that they are finding patterns
in human conduct and nature that would
have never been found without the ability
to analyze these large data sets.
In the past, in order to discover or re-
search something new, researchers would
postulate a theory, gather data to test it,
use statistical sampling to extrapolate
from that data and then reach a conclu-
sion. But this process has a major limita-
tion: The researcher must pose the ques-
tions before the sample data is collected.
Big data is fundamentally changing
this process. Rather than creating a the-
ory and gathering sample data to test it,
which may in itself skew the results, re-
searchers are gathering a massive amount
of data and then looking for patterns and
correlations. In doing so, they are let-
ting the data speak for itself. By looking
at massive amounts of data objectively
(rather than sample data), researchers
are now making discoveries that are not
limited by human instinct and intuition.
This does not mean big data replaces hu-
man instinct or intuition. But sometimes,
human instinct and intuition are skewed
by the natural desire to figure out why
something happened; for example, why a
disease starts. Instead of looking for why,
however, big data focuses on what—that
is, what’s likely to happen next.
In their excellent book, “Big Data: A
Revolution That Will Transform How We
Live and Work,” authors Kenneth Cukier
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