Svetlana Sicular (@Sve_Sic), Gartner Research Director, offers a Big Data roadmap (via rww article). One of the delightful surprises in her report is a definition of a data-driven enterprise that includes process and people:

  • Fact-based decision making
  • Treating information as an asset
  • Business people responsible for analytics and acting on outcomes
  • IT people responsible for information management and provisioning

rocket ship with data: analytics, cloud, social, mobile

She also clarifies that Big Data is not just about volume

Big data is high-volume, high-velocity and
high-variety information assets that
demand cost-effective, innovative forms of
information processing for enhanced
insight and decision making.

Structured data is still valuable. She argues most valuable, but I’m not sure about that — at least not the structured data we already have. If we can turn our so-called “content” into data and see behaviors of our customers, our visitors, even ourselves as data, those insights can dramatically change our perspective. Arguably, big data allows us to turn large, quickly changing, or complex data into small, simpler, structured information that we can act on.

I love the term “dark data” — data we already have, but aren’t looking at.

When mining big data, you’ll find unexpected
(but real) results. Don’t start a project if you’re
unwilling to deal with the findings.

The most exciting aspect of Big Data, from my perspective, is that data formats are less important, the structure of the data can be inferred later. For our most critical and urgent challenges, we don’t know the questions at the time that we start collecting data. Sicular notes that with big data, we can ask bigger questions. We can also ask different questions.

In How Coding Went Mainstream, Lauren Orsini writes “why it became easier than ever to learn computer science in 2013.” It is true that it is easier to learn to code than ever before. There are great resources available. However, this does not mean that it is easy to learn computer science or become a software developer.

Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson declares “A computer science degree is a rip off…I know because I have one.” Perhaps his CS degree was from a college which didn’t have a very good program or maybe his focus has been web development where you rarely need computer science. I am glad I have a CS degree. It gave me a great foundation for the ever-shifting technologies in our industry. I’ve gone from building desktop applications to internet multimedia to creating a JavaScript framework to web apps to native mobile applications. The technologies I used for coding when I was in college are now obsolete, but the ways of thinking and problem-solving techniques are pretty much the same.

I believe that you can learn everything you learn in school on your own, especially as a software developer. That doesn’t make a degree worthless. It’s a privilege and an opportunity to be able to spend 4 years focused on learning. That said, everyone doesn’t have to be a software engineer or learn computer science.

I do believe that everyone should learn to code. Knowing how to work with technology is an essential skill for the 21st century. Even if you aren’t very good at it, knowing how to code helps people understand what is possible. Also most software has advanced features that require you to do things that use coding skills — setting up mail filters, creating spreadsheet formulas, even styles in Microsoft Word. There’s logic, preconditions, consequences, and a whole lot of things that are easier to understand once you know how to code. If you go past the conceptual understanding and can write scripts, you are way ahead in being able to connect disparate systems or simply use the power of computers so you can do what humans are good at and let the computers do mindless, repetitive tasks.

So, please, go do that hour of code if you haven’t already. Who knows? Maybe you’ll want to become a software developer, but even if you don’t, it’s worth the effort, and might even be fun!

In 1826, James Smithson wrote in his will that, if his heir were to die without children, his entire estate would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” This unusual bequest was even more strange in that James Smithson has never been to the United States of America in his lifetime.

At the time, President Andrew Jackson didn’t feel that accepting this bequest was within the powers of the executive branch, so it was up to Congress to decided what to do. There were great debates on how to interpret this strange bequest. Should it be dedicated to our scientific knowledge? to understanding our world through the arts? should this institution be the keeper of history? or even create an observatory to look out at the stars and understand our universe? Finally in an Act of Congress on July 1, 1836, the Smithsonian Institution was founded to do all of those things.

In my first few of working at the Smithsonian, I toured the Smithsonian Institution Archives where I saw this hand-written will:

I learned more about about Smithsonian history on a tour of the “Castle” with curator Rick Stamm, author of an illustrated history of the Smithsonian Institution Building.

We don’t know exactly why James Smithson made this strange bequest, but it was in an age when our understanding of the world was changing. Smithson had been born in Paris, as the illegitimate son of first Duke of Northumberland. In The Lost World of James Smithson, Heather Ewing notes, that due to the circumstances of his birth, Brittish law declared that he

shall not be hereby Enabled to be of the Privy council or a Member of either the house of Parliament or to take any Office or place of Trust either Civil or Military or to have any Grant of Lands, Tenements or Hereditaments any inheritable property from the Crown to him or to any Person or Persons In trust for him.”
p. 46

However, he still was able to attend Oxford and became a citizen scientist of his day, distinguishing himself as a chemist. He joined several phillosopher’s clubs — gatherings of young men who would discuss theories of the new science. Reading about this history makes me wonder if tech meetups are the modern day equivalent, where men and women gather to exchange ideas and evaluate the latest inventions and discoveries. It strikes me that James Smithson must have seen America as a place where a new institution could thrive, dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge, rather than simply promoting the progeny of the privileged.

James Smithson, of course, was quite privileged, but perhaps his own struggles for recognition provided some perspective that caused him to strive for a higher ideal. Or perhaps he just wanted to make sure that the Brittish crown was never able to seize his assets, even after death. In any case, he left his fortune to our country almost 200 years ago, and the folks at the Smithsonian take its mission quite seriously.

To this day, the Smithsonian museums have no admission cost and are free to the public. Its archives, libraries, research institutes and observatory offer scientists and researchers, facilities and unparalleled historic collections that enable new discoveries every day.