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July 10, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 11:37am

13 ways to explain big data to a five-year-old

The definitive definition of big data from the experts for the kids (and adults, too).

By Amy-Jo Crowley

Jonathan Birch, Head of Architecture at NTT DATA

"Imagine trying to finish the last page of your colouring book, but suddenly you find that you’ve got more crayons than you know what to do with. You want to use them all, but you know that if you do, you won’t be able to stay inside the lines! So, someone needs to help you manage your choices to ensure you only use the crayons you need – probably your mum or dad!"

Laurie Miles, head of Analytics at SAS UK & Ireland

"Imagine a giant toy box, filled to the brim with lego bricks, duplo blocks and your favourite characters. Sounds exciting right? You could build all sorts of things, castles, forts, fire engines and even pirate ships. But with a box as big as you are and thousands of bricks all jumbled up it could be pretty difficult to find the right pieces.

"Big data is a lot like that toy box. A big jumble of numbers and words. This makes it very difficult to read and understand without lots of help.

"Say you wanted to build a fire engine. You would need some red bricks, a fireman model, wheels and the ladder for the fire engine. In that jumbled up box it would take you all day to find those bricks. It’s the same when it comes to big data. There is a lot of useful information in those huge data sets but finding it can be difficult."

Andrew Jennings, chief analytics officer at FICO

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"Data is just another word for little bits of ideas. Imagine millions of these little bits of ideas, like stars up in the sky. When you look up at the stars, you see a bunch of tiny lights. But you can also imagine shapes: a warrior over here, a big spoon over there.

"The warrior is an idea, and the stars are data that make up that idea. Now, when people talk about big data, they’re talking about not just the stars you and I can see when we look up, but all the zillions of other stars out there that we might only be able to see through a big telescope. Just imagine what kinds of shapes you could see if you could look at all the stars in the universe. What would that look like?"

Matt Davies, product marketing director at Splunk

"Think of all the books, all the TV programs, all the music, pictures, all the things ever written down and all the drawings ever done available for you to look at and watch whenever you want.

"You’d never have to ask mummy or daddy a question and them say "I don’t know" because they’d be able to find out pretty much anything.

"Imagine being able to ask any question you can think of and being able to get an answer whenever you need it, for example you’d be able to find out anything, ever about Frozen.

"You’d be able to find out every game of Angry Birds ever played, what the score was and how many pigs were squashed.

"You would be able to find out every journey Thomas the Tank Engine has ever taken, who he spoke to and other trains who helped him on his adventures, how they helped, how much coal they used and who was in the train carriages."

David Gibson, VP at Varonis

"Think about data like books on a bookshelf. You can probably count and sort the books on your bookshelf at home in just a few minutes, all by yourself. But if someone asked you to count all the books at the library, it would take you years to finish!

"Or, if someone asked you to find the most common things that make all the characters in all your books feel happy or sad, that would take a long, long time. Just like books in a library, data on computers can grow so big and contain so many interesting facts that it becomes hard to count and sort and make good use of."

Andy Fuller, head of Data Analytics at Fujitsu UK & Ireland

"What if you could remember all of the jokes ever told by anyone and always knew the best one to tell?… That’s what big data can do…Imagine an amazing machine that watched all of the television happening in the world all the time and then helped you to watch only the really good programmes that you like, whenever you want… That’s what big data can do…"




Donald Farmer, Qlik’s VP of product management

"Can you write down your name and your age? I am sure you can. Can you write it down for everyone in your class? Or for everyone in your school? Or everyone in your town? Everyone in the country? Everyone in the world? And then write down their age, their favourite colour, their favourite animal, their favourite TV programmes, almost anything you can think of … for millions and millions of people.

"That’s too much, isn’t it? You can’t do it, and I can’t do it. But some computers can do this, and we call it ‘big data’. Data is all the stuff we are writing down and you can imagine, for millions, billions, gazillions of people it is really BIG.

"What can we do with all this data? We can find patterns. For example, people making television programs may discover that children who like music really like drawing too, so they could make a new program about music and art. Or hospitals could discover that people who like different foods may get sick in different ways as they get older. That could help families and doctors look after our grandparents better."

Alwin Magimay, head of digital and analytics at KPMG

"You go into a fun fair and you see a competition where you have to guess the number of sweets there are in the jar. The person who gets it right or with the nearest guess wins the whole jar. Interestingly, studies have shown that if you take the average guess from 1,000 people, you will more or less get the exact right answer, every time. Same with big data – by analysing large amounts of data, you are likely to make some accurate predictions."

Alys Woodard, research analyst for big data at IDC

"When you’re a grown-up, your phone, or your tablet, or your Google Glass, or whatever you have, will know all about you and what you like. Sometimes it will tell you what you did before so you remember to do it again, and other times it will suggest new things for you to do because it works out what you might like. Nowadays this is all new, so we call it "big data", but by the time you’re grown up it won’t really be called anything, except by people whose job it is to work all the big computers that make it happen. If your phone knows all about you, it’s important that bad people don’t take your phone and find out all about you too."

James Petter, SVP and managing director UK & Ireland at EMC

"We are all surrounded by data – words, music, pictures, games and other types of information that can be found in computers, cars and other machines in the world around us. In fact, there is enough data in the world to fill a stack of iPads reaching almost to the moon. This is a HUGE amount of information whizzing around.

"Big data is taking all this information and creating a join-the-dots picture. On your piece of paper you have lots of separate parts, but when connected in the right order you are able to see something new that you didn’t know was there before. This is exactly how big data works."

Mike Hoskins, CTO at Actian

"Every time you play your favourite video game, your high score has to be saved somewhere so you can show your friends later. Your friends, and everyone else playing the game, want to share their scores, too. All of these scores start to build up – making something called ‘big data.’ Big data is exactly what it sounds like – a lot of information created by a lot of different people. This information adds up every time you play games, surf the internet or post on Facebook. When we keep, compare and share data about your game scores, we can create even cooler games for you and your friends to enjoy."

Jonathan Hobday, commercial director at Innovise IES

"Lots of new machines are giving us lots of new information that we never had before, like the Coca-Cola machine telling us how many cans have been sold and a mobile phone telling us where the man who refills the machines is.

"This data can tell us really valuable things like who is the best person to refill the machine and when so you get your can of Coke when you want. But… all of this information for the hundreds of Coke machines in thousands of cities with thousands of people refilling are all producing this information. That is an enormous mountain of information, from which we would like to know who is the best person and when is the best time to keep my local Coca-Cola vending machine filled.

"So we need a big machine into which we can tip all of this big data into, crunch it up and produce a small bit of information that is useful to us."

Jed Mole, Acxiom’s European marketing director

"Imagine you had a big book, not a small book. Now imagine a book as big as the biggest building you can ever imagine, full of interesting words and pictures and getting bigger every second, and you still wouldn’t be close to the amount of information in the world. All of this information, because that’s all data really is, lets people do incredible things, from finding a special place to go on holiday and buying presents, to catching criminals or making new medicines. But if you think of a book without any words or pictures – that’s what the world would look like without data."



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