Big data delivering small returns? Time to embrace thick data.

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The big data industry is big business. It’s now worth a whopping $122 billion thanks to individuals and organisations globally using it obsessively to aid decisions about everything from medical risks and procurement to logistics and manufacturing. Yet despite big data’s magnitude, its returns can be surprisingly low. Why? Because while big data is easy to invest in, it’s much harder to use.


We all want to make the right decision. This was the universal truth that spearheaded technology ethnographer Tricia Wang’s fascinating TEDx talk in Boston last year.

As Tricia explained, this desire has created a fixation with big data, an industry that is now worth a whopping $122 billion. Big data has become the equivalent of a modern-day oracle, with organisations and individuals using it obsessively to aid decisions about everything from medical risks and procurement to logistics and manufacturing.

Yet despite big data’s magnitude, its returns are surprisingly low. “Investing in big data is easy,” says Tricia. “But using it is hard.”

It’s a story that those in manufacturing circles find all too familiar, and the inspiration behind Out Performers’ specialist Energy Management Centre (EMC) service.

Manufacturing: a big data hotbed

The modernisation of manufacturing has seen an exponential increase in the amount of process data available to site managers. In the energy management space, best practice operators are continuing to invest heavily in sub-metering systems that are generating large volumes of data about how plant and equipment are performing.

However, when it comes to using all this data, many plant and energy managers are struggling to put the numbers into context. The result is lack of clarity around which actions will realistically improve energy performance, and frustration that investments in costly systems are delivering masses of data, but little or no benefit.

Thick data: the missing link

So why is it that big data is failing to help humans make better decisions? According to Tricia, it’s not big data’s fault. It’s the way we’re using it that’s to blame. “Relying on big data alone increases the chances we’ll miss something, while giving us the illusion we know everything,” she says.

Tricia goes on to explain that humans have a quantification bias – “an unconscious belief of valuing the measurable over the immeasurable” – which comes with an inherent danger of easily disregarding an important piece of information simply because it can’t be expressed as a numerical value.

Big data systems shouldn’t work in isolation. Rather, they work best in tandem with human insights that cannot be quantified, or what Tricia refers to as “thick data”. Encompassing stories, emotions and interactions, thick data comes from a much smaller sample size than big data, but delivers much greater depth of meaning, and provides the context that makes big data more usable.

“Big data delivers the best of machine intelligence, while thick data delivers the best of human intelligence,” explains Tricia. When the two are combined, the results can be very powerful.

Closing the gap between big data and thick data in your operation

The investments many businesses are making in metering and monitoring infrastructure are sound, however they’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: the thick data that uncovers the broader operating context of the business.

This precious data comes in many forms, including:

    • Operational insights: “That product is due to be discontinued in the future, so there’s no point investing in upgrades there.”
    • Physical insights: “This building doesn’t have enough space to reconfigure the line.”
    • Analytical insights: “When these two systems start up together, our maximum demand spikes – a small procedural change could avoid this.”
    • Engineering insights: “That system is reliable but operating 30% below best practice for its type.”

All these pieces of immeasurable yet invaluable information can help derive more meaning and prioritised action from your big data, ensuring much higher returns on those metering and monitoring investments.

Fusing big data and thick data with Out Performers

Out Performers’ Energy Management Centre (EMC) is a unique service specifically developed to address the gap between big data and thick data. Our engineers are trained in the analysis of energy systems, and they spend time getting to know your site before looking holistically at your data.

The EMC is the missing link that brings together global best practice, with knowledge of your site and your objectives to ensure you meet your energy productivity goals.

If you would like to discuss how Out Performers can help you optimise your operation’s data, contact Michael Porter, Out Performers’ EMC Manager, on 0406 592 248 or email