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7/2/2014
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How To Explain Big Data To A 5th Grader

Just how big is big data? What problems does Hadoop solve? This mom explained it in plain English using the example of an online game.

10 More Powerful Facts About Big Data
10 More Powerful Facts About Big Data
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

I'm one of those geeky moms in the big data industry who loves to talk with my family about the cool things I'm doing at work. So my 10-year-old daughter, Jo, hears about technical subjects a lot. I didn't think she was ever paying that much attention until she asked me one day, "So what is big data, anyway?"

My mind went blank at first, because I rarely talk to anyone outside the industry about big data and analytics, let alone to a fifth grader. But thinking about it from her perspective made me realize how fascinating and important big data is -- as long as I started from the right place. So I thought for a moment before telling my daughter the following.

The basics: Data you care about
Me: The first two facts of big data are a) you need data, and b) companies collect data because they care about what that data can tell them. Nobody wants to go through the trouble of collecting, storing, processing, and analyzing data unless it is worth their while. So I'm going to explain big data as it relates to your favorite online game, Fantage. (For the uninitiated, this is a utopia of young girl pursuits -- shopping for virtual outfits, caring for virtual pets, decorating your virtual palace, attending virtual parties, and having other virtual fun.)

Jo: OK!

[Big data will take off as traditional industries such as retail increasingly adopt initiatives. Read Big Data Innovation To Hit Legacy IT.]

Me: Data is just a record of stuff that happened. Every time you play your game, the game company is recording what you see and do, so they can make the game better for you.

Jo: Oh. So they know everything I do?

Me: Well, not necessarily. To actually know what you did, they would have to look at the data they collected. Part of big data is capturing what happened, and the other part is understanding what happened.

(Jo plays the game for a few minutes while I record what she does. I watch the recording and enter the events into a spreadsheet.)

Volume, explained
Me: So the first thing about big data is that it is big.

Jo: How big?

Me: Well, it depends on who you ask. To you, anything that doesn't fit on your iPod is big. To me, anything that doesn't fit on my laptop is big. It also depends on when you ask. What was considered big 10 years ago is not considered very big today. Did you know my first laptop was so small that it would only fit about two Disney movies, 100 songs, and two Katy Perry videos?

Jo: That is not good.

Me: At the time, it was pretty good. Another thing about big data is that it never stops growing. There will always be more data -- like movies, songs, or videos -- that you want to keep.

Jo: Does my game have big data?

Me: Well, in just one minute of playing, I saw you do about 20 things. If you played for 30 minutes, that would be 600 things just about you alone. Let's say that 500 other people were also playing at the same time. That is now 300,000 things

Daria Hutchinson is the Senior Manager of Technical Publications at Platfora, a big-data analytics software company, where she writes all types of technical prose, including user guides, training curriculum, instructional videos, whitepapers, and online help systems. Daria is ... View Full Bio
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Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
7/4/2014 | 1:41:51 AM
Re: We all benefit from clear explanations of tech
It is truly amazing that generation Z is learning about Big Data, while they are in the 5th grade. Imagine the subjects and concepts that they will be learning about in university and then, step into the workforce.
IMjustinkern
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IMjustinkern,
User Rank: Strategist
7/3/2014 | 12:45:08 PM
Re: Cool!
There are a lot of people well past 5th grade who should give this a read. Smart and cute, well done
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
7/3/2014 | 12:44:52 PM
Re: We all benefit from clear explanations of tech
Shane, that's another sentiment voiced repeatedly in the Twitter feed re. this story. Thanks for sharing, Daria -- and thanks to all of you who shared the story.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
7/2/2014 | 4:46:41 PM
Big data captures an inflection point
Terms like "big data" and "cloud computing" capture a major chift, an inflection point, in the computing process of which they are a part. They're imprecise, because we've not yet been able to define or apply metrics to the age that has just dawned. But in this case, they both emphasis a new scale and new way of doing things. As soon as they become the standard way, the term cloud and big will go away and we'll once again refer to computing and data. Nice big data explanatoin here by Dana Hutchinson. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/2/2014 | 3:42:35 PM
Re: We all benefit from clear explanations of tech
Agreed. Well-written. I just wish we could drop the term "big," which strikes me as unnecesary and imprecise.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
7/2/2014 | 2:01:25 PM
We all benefit from clear explanations of tech
You didn't just explain big data to a 5th grader -- you explained it to a 40-year-old! And I thank you. 
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
7/2/2014 | 10:29:07 AM
Lesson learned
As someone wrote in our Twitter feed this morning re this story: "Lesson for all: If professionals talked more to children, they'd be able to communicate better to adults too."
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
7/2/2014 | 9:20:35 AM
Cool!
I think the core essence behind this post is about how to explain the technical stuff in layman word, which is important for the prevailing of new technology. As professional IT  staff, we should have the capability to explain and decompose complex technical stuff into simple pieces. We should be able to educate others by using layman word. The author is a  really  good mother by educating her lovely daughter in an interesting and attractive way, This is really cool and we all need such kind of skill to post good blurb for fantastic  things in our mind.:-)
6 Tools to Protect Big Data
6 Tools to Protect Big Data
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