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How to ask the Big Data questions that matter

Big Data can tell businesses so much about themselves, their customers and clients that it has the potential to add a great deal of value to any organisation.

However, many companies fall into the trap of thinking that more data automatically equals greater insight. In fact, businesses and data scientists need to remember that smarter thinking will always trump bigger thinking, so no matter how many facts and figures you have at your disposal, effective Big Data analysis is all about asking the right questions.

Read more: Whitepaper: Big data helps bust the top three myths of employee engagement and leadership

In order to come up with the right questions for your business, you need to assess what exactly you want to get from the data. Running data through an analytics program will not spontaneously provide ground-breaking insights, without some structure in place first.

Why are we losing customers? How effective is our social media strategy? How do I increase sales of a particular product? These are all clearly defined questions that businesses can use Big Data to answer. Dell’s senior integrated solutions consultant Peter Evans believes that many firms may be getting caught up in the Big Data hype without giving it careful thought.

"Whenever I get to the point where somebody's asking about a Big Data system, I ask them: 'What are the questions you want to use this Big Data system to ask? How are they different from the questions you're asking now?'" he said (opens in new tab). "If you don't understand the questions you want to ask, how can you make a decision about whether you need Big Data? Because your gut tells you so? Because you read somewhere - in a magazine on a plane - that you need Big Data?"

In order to come up with the most effective and bespoke business questions, companies should look at their strengths, weakness and future goals. By looking internally, companies can easily decide what areas they need to improve, what areas they want to maintain and where the business is going. Once this has been defined, useful Big Data questions should be much more forthcoming.

In fact, when it comes to Big Data the questions themselves are just as important as the answers. Organisations that are able to come up with effective Big Data questioning are normally those that are well aware of their own business goals and the state of the surrounding market. Therefore, accurate questioning suggest that a business is more focused than one that blindly runs analytics for the sake of it.

Asking the right questions also leads to more useful insights because it can narrow the data sets that you are working with.

Businesses already have access to so much data, whether that’s internal or relating to their customers, and this is likely to be exacerbated by the development of the Internet of Things over the next few years. By asking specific questions, organisations are not running analytics against all the data that is available, but only the information pertinent to that particular query.

This narrowing of the data set not only leads to faster analysis, but also reduces the likelihood of forming misleading or erroneous conclusions.

Read more: Answering the challenges of maintaining data quality in the Big Data deluge

The most effective use of Big Data and analytics is sure to be one of the major topics of discussion at this year’s IP Expo (opens in new tab), taking place on the 20-21 May at Manchester Central.

Register to attend IP EXPO 2015 FREE today (opens in new tab).

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.