Why Big Data Scares Me

When I graduated from high school, I knew three languages. I was fluent in two and had a fairly good working knowledge of the third. Today, my second and third languages are a bit rusty but I can get by when spoken to or making an inquiry.  Yet, I feel compelled to learn another bunch of languages. I fear that if I don't I won't be able to talk to my children let alone my future grandchildren, I won't be able to maintain my job or advance in my career and I most definitely will lose any trace of being as a worldly individual if I can't "speak" Ruby, Python, SQL, Java or any other of the languages Mashable tells me I need to learn right now. I'm not kidding, I have looked at Women Who Code, Lynda.com and other sites, unsure of where to start and how to deal with the overwhelming sense of coding disability.  I feel pressure to be something I am not in response to the changing market. Apparently, even long after high school, peer pressure doesn't go away, everyone is coding and I need to too! 
For me, coding is symptomatic of a bigger fear. A fear that until recently I thought I was shielded from in some respects, being a law firm marketer, business development, and CI person.  My real fear is Big Data.  The stuff collected passively in the background, sometimes for a reason, other times just because the technology is there to collect it.  Law firms are jumping on the Big Data/BI train, a train travelling so fast that Dennis Hopper would be proud.  True, I did collaborate on a book some three years ago with the Ark Group on Business Intelligence for law firms and in that publication, I did write about data and how firms can increase efficiency and provide better value to clients using scraped data and robust analytic techniques. All of which, still stands. I do believe that there is power in the data we collect and even more power to be harnessed if we can find meaningful ways to make sense of that data.
I have no illusions of becoming a data scientist, nor do I suggest that all law firm marketers need to be comfortable dabbling in data, but data, like "information" circa 2005, data has become ubiquitous and the legal industry is far from immune.  In August, DataFloq the self described "One Stop Shop for Big Data" published a post on how a variety of law firms are tapping into the data revolution.  You can read it here: How Big Data Can Improve the Practice of Law . Companies and thought leaders blogged about on 3 Geeks in the past, such as LexMachina or David Perla of BloombergLaw openly discuss the impact data has, will have and should have on both the practice and business of law.   Some firms, like Littler Mendleson have even created roles for national directors of data analytics in an effort to woo general counsels. 
Big Data, like the coding languages and algorithms needed to support extracting insights from the data is real and not going away.  We live now and forever more, in a data driven world where we have the capacity with relative ease to know, for example, that a clause we are putting into an agreement is used 5% of the time in a industry, 76.6% of the time in a type of contract, and .9% of the time in a particular jurisdiction.  The same intensity of analytics can be applied to the kind of coffee we drink, the clothes we buy or litigations our firms undertake and their probable success rates.  Statistical probably will soon run the world.    That’s what scares me.  I'm all for data driven hypothesis and fact based learnings.  But I think there is something to be said for the human element - the syntax, the colour, the qualitative nature and value of being graciously flawed and human. In law firms there are vast amounts of unstructured data, the art and craft of lawyering is often about interpretation and word nuance. 
There have been cases won and lost on the placement of commas in an agreement, beautiful examples of the dynamic nature of language that no machine learning, no data as I see it, will ever be able to understand.  We need data and the ever increasing pace at which we are expected to respond to client needs demands that we use the data available to us in new ways, requiring us to speak to new languages. I am not na├»ve to this I am scared though, that as we wade through the data, we will drown in a pool of objective facts and figures.  I liken it to knowing the score at a sporting event without knowing what happened, player and team stats will go up and down, predictions about winners and losers can be made but the great plays, the epic bat flips and the amazing free shots would be lost.  Imagine sports coverage as score keeping without the colourful narrative. This is what I fear will happen if we spend too much letting Big Data and analytics aid and even replace our subjective discussions and decision making. Not everything can or should be reduced to a series of numbers and equations.  There is value in the narrative, nuggest of gold in the telling of the story. 
The idea of Big Data is hard to resist, like the shiny glint of a smoking silver bullet in a haystack (metaphors mixed for emphasis). We like Big Data because its clean and seemingly perfect. It lets human imperfection off the hook.  But we know from experience and the history of humanity that we are not perfect, there is rarely a silver bullet, and statistics, though based in numbers can often be skewed or misinterpreted.  So humour my fears as we propel ourselves forward at a rapid pace on the Big Data train in law firms and in life and lets add some colour to our use of Big Data. 

Tips on coding lessons welcome and accepted. 

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Suki Fuller said...

Codeacademy is a great place to start. https://www.codecademy.com

Kerri said...

The big data thing is getting out of control. With it, the IoT and the cloud, security is being lowered significantly to benefit the big businesses. Scary stuff!

Ryan Buckingham said...

Very adept observations, Zena. I actually wrote a similar article entitled Data Analytics Isn't All About Unicorns on LinkedIn a couple of months ago. It's easy to get swept up in the hype and fear of being left behind; however, we have to temper expectations with the reality that most organizations will still have significant analytics needs that do not require the proverbial data scientist unicorn. It makes sense to hedge your bets and continue to develop your skills, but I believe the probability of success and career satisfaction is much higher if you focus on being great in an area you know and like rather than being good enough at something that's adjacent to your core competencies.


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