A guide to what data mining is, how it works, and why it’s important.

 

Big data is everywhere we look these days. Businesses are falling all over themselves to hire ‘data scientists,’ privacy advocates are concerned about personal data and control, and technologists and entrepreneurs scramble to find new ways to collect, control and monetize data. We know that data is powerful and valuable. But how?

This article is an attempt to explain how data mining works and why you should care about it. Because when we think about how our data is being used, it is crucial to understand the power of this practice. Without data mining, when you give someone access to information about you, all they know is what you have told them. With data mining, they know what you have told them and can guess a great deal more. Put another way, data mining allows companies and governments to use the information you provide to reveal more than you think.

 

 

To most of us data mining goes something like this: tons of data is collected, then quant wizards work their arcane magic, and then they know all of this amazing stuff. But, how? And what types of things can they know? Here is the truth: despite the fact that the specific technical functioning of data mining algorithms is quite complex — they are a black box unless you are a professional statistician or computer scientist — the uses and capabilities of these approaches are, in fact, quite comprehensible and intuitive.

For the most part, data mining tells us about very large and complex data sets, the kinds of information that would be readily apparent about small and simple things. For example, it can tell us that “one of these things is not like the other” a la Sesame Street or it can show us categories and then sort things into pre-determined categories. But what’s simple with 5 datapoints is not so simple with 5 billion datapoints.

 

 

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