How Much Data is Too Much Data?
By Jillian Broaddus and Chuck Cusumano
A few weeks ago – and after a long-awaited five-week shipping delay – I was greeted in my mailbox by a device the egotist, athlete, and data nerd in me were all eager to test out: a Whoop!
(This isn’t an ad for Whoop, although the features are pretty fascinating!)
If you haven’t heard of Whoop, it’s a wearable fitness tracker, much like a FitBit or Apple Watch, with a focus on monitoring sleep, recovery, and daily strain so that you can maximize your fitness. It would take a myriad of blog posts to detail all of this tiny wristband’s set of features, but suffice it to say the data is both incredibly impressive and borderline overwhelming. Every morning, I’m awoken to see my resting heart rate, heart rate variability, skin temperature, respiratory rate, calorie count, daily strain score, recovery percentage, and a “snapshot” of my sleep, which looks something like this:
Plus, after answering dozens of daily questions about my nutritional and lifestyle habits, I’m rewarded with weekly and monthly summaries detailing how my routines and choices affect my heart, mind, and body.
As I said, the numbers-lover and competitive runner in me both love my new toy. However, the complex interface got me thinking: how much data is too much data?
Whether you track your daily steps or not, you likely feel the data overload in our world. You can see it in the increasing capacity of our smartphones or in the hundreds of thousands of Google pages that turn up in a matter of seconds for any given search. In a recent MarTechNews article quoted in Forbes, Debra Bass, President of JNJ, dubbed it “InfoObesity.” Sara Spivey, CMO of Bazaarvoice, went on to perfectly describe the problem with InfoObesity: “Data saturation is everywhere. We’ve often had the belief that more is better; however, that actually isn’t true in the case of data. The rapid rise in our ability to collect data hasn’t been matched by our ability to support, filter, and manage the data. As an example, think about the first problem that people complain about when a city experiences great growth – the roads are too crowded. The infrastructure can’t keep up. [We’re] facing the same problem. Too much data with not enough structure in place to manage the data and not enough meaningful application.”
In fact, the amount of data in the world isn’t even quantifiable in terms that most of us have ever heard; we’ve had to create new, unfamiliar words in order to capture the data available to us – currently measured in “zettabytes.” A “zettabyte” is defined as “2 to the 70th power bytes, also expressed as 1021 (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) or 1 sextillion bytes. One Zettabyte is approximately equal to a thousand Exabytes, a billion Terabytes, or a trillion Gigabytes.”
It’s reported that the vast majority of the world’s data has been created in the last few years, with no sign of slowing down. In fact, IDC predicts the world’s data will grow to 175 zettabytes in 2025. What does this look like in terms that we can somewhat begin to wrap our heads around…?:
Stored on DVDs, 175 zettabytes would be long enough to circle Earth 222 times.
Downloading 175 zettabytes at the average current internet connection speed would take 1.8 billion years.
It’s no secret where the data overload is born from: Your reading of this blog results in data. Your Tweet (multiplied by nearly half a million Tweets sent every minute across the world) – data! Your credit card swipe, your GPS tracker, and my Whoop sleep report – data, data, data!
So, how do we best manage in a world with too much data to make sense of? My favorite answer was given by Philosopher Alan Watts, who discussed the problem – and the solution – decades ago, before the sheer amount of information was nearly what it is today. He said, “You do not know where your decisions come from. They pop up like hiccups. And people have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions. Did I think this over long enough? Did I take enough data into consideration? And if you think it through, you find you never could take enough data into consideration. The data for a decision for any given situation is infinite…Whether you decide you can’t make a mistake or whether you don’t decide it, it is true anyway.”
This isn’t to say to ignore data you’re fortunate enough to have at your fingertips. However, remember: the data is (almost literally) infinite. Trying to sort through it all would take a lifetime – or at least 1.8 billion years! So, find the most important pieces that will aid in your decision making, and proceed confidently. Avoid losing your head in the details, getting bogged down in the stress of options, and endlessly thinking through possibilities; data has the power to do more harm than good if you let it!
Do you have a data-driven decision you need help with? Let us know and we’d love to help you sort through the madness at firstname.lastname@example.org!