Unlock the AI-Value Contribution with Small Data and Tools

Posted by Peter Rudin on 6. May 2022 in Essay

Rising Complexity      picture credit: computerwoche.de


According to a May 2021 press release, Gartner Says 70% of Organizations Will Shift Their Focus From Big to Small and Wide Data By 2025 providing more context for analytics and making artificial intelligence (AI) less data hungry. Data Analytics leaders need to turn to new techniques known as ‘small data’ and ‘wide data’. “Taken together they are capable of using available data more effectively, either by reducing the required volume or by extracting more value from unstructured, diverse data sources,” said Jim Hare, distinguished research vice president at Gartner. Small data is an approach that requires less data but still offers useful insights. Wide data enables the analysis and synergy of a variety of small and large, unstructured and structured data sources. The following provides some views for the discussion as to why this trend is gaining momentum.

AI-Tools and Project Segmentation are Key 

Today AI is empowering almost all industry segments. Data generation, cloud-storage, affordable computing and commoditized algorithms have very much taken center-stage of AI-activities. But when it comes to current machine learning initiatives, decision-makers who provide the budgets for these initiatives see their interest and trust waning. According to a US census bureau 2020 report , just under 9% of all major US companies use AI productively. Several industry reports put the failure rate of large-scale AI-projects at anywhere between 70% and 80%. In contrast, picking a small project to get started can show demonstrable progress and  ensures that one has the right team to solve the problem. To reach this goal  – at the very least – a company needs to have a data scientist and a machine-learning engineer. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a need for 11.5 Mio. data science professionals by 2026 in the US alone, compared to the 3 Mio. currently available. According to the report, the low AI-adoption is not due to the lack of willingness but due to three major challenges: 

  • Complexity of AI-technology                  
  • Affordability                  
  • Unavailability of the right talent 

Rather than following the ‘old’ path of managing big data with big projects, a different mind-set is necessary in two respects: firstly, break down the project into smaller segments and secondly, select out-of-the-box tools that match your business needs best. The market for quality tools is rapidly expanding while the companies providing consultancy services to install and maintain these tools is also growing – thereby significantly reducing the manpower-bottleneck in small- to mid-sized corporations. The corporate inventory of tools might also include tools that rely on huge data sets, such as the transformer-models to build Natural Language Processing (NLP) applications such as voicebots for customer-support. If implemented successfully, this tool-strategy will strengthen the human factor within the man-machine relationship for solving problems. Likewise, this process will foster creativity and innovation as humans have more time to think and reflect.  

A Neural Analogy to Creativity

A new fMRI study conducted by researchers at UCLA in 2022 suggests, that creativity in artists and scientists is related to random connections between distant brain regions using a vast network of rarely used neural pathways. “Our results showed that highly creative people have a unique brain connectivity that tends to stay off the beaten track. While non-creatives tended to follow the same routes across the brain, highly creative people made their own roads”, Ariana Anderson of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior said in a news release. As a result of this latest neuroimaging study, it appears that creativity blossoms when people get off the beaten path inside their brains. Although the concept of creativity has been studied for decades, little is known about its biological bases, and even less is understood about the brain mechanisms of exceptionally creative people, said senior author Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity at the Semel Institute. This uniquely designed study included highly creative people representing two different domains of creativity – visual arts and the sciences. The study was based on an IQ-matched comparison group to identify markers of creativity, not just intelligence. “Exceptional creativity was associated with more random connectivity, a pattern that is less ‘efficient’ but would appear helpful in linking distant brain nodes to each other.” Bilder who has more than 30 years of experience in researching brain-behavior relations, said “The fact that highly creative people have more efficient local brain connectivity may relate to their expertise. Consistent with some of our prior findings, highly creative people may not need to work as hard as other smart people to perform certain creative tasks.” To draw an analogy, one could conclude that the quality of AI-tools applied in a corporate setting plus a mind-change towards small data does raise the level of creativity and innovation with more time available to think and reflect.


From Big to Small

Most of the past ten years’ attention in AI-research has been focused on big data to fuel the development of data science and machine-learning. Big data applications are extremely useful, such as smart electric grids, autonomous vehicles, money laundering and threat detection to name just a few. However, the energy spent on Big Data may obscure something we intuitively know. Martin Lindstrom’s Book, ‘The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends’, first published in 2016, relates to seemingly  insignificant observations that disclose people’s subconscious behavior. Lindstrom’s book solidifies the fact that observation and research are essential when building a product or service. It also underlines the need for empathy in design and confirms that ‘Design Thinking’ is a critical part of a product and service design process. As 85% of our behavior is subconscious, small data provides the clues to the causation and hypotheses behind that behavior. Compared to small data, big data is rational data that correlates information. But as big data analysts apply random search in billions of data resources, the results are imprecise, mainly because of inbuilt biases. By using small data, one can find the imbalances in people’s lives that represent a need and ultimately a gap in the market for a new brand. One example is Lindstrom’s theory that Amazon will fail if they attempt to open unemotional, shelf-type bookstores because they will not embed themselves in the community. They will not pick up on the clues like independent booksellers do, or as Lindstrom says: “Where big data is good at going down the transaction path if you click, pick and run, you could say that small data is fuelling the experiential shopping, the feeling of community, the feeling of the senses – all that stuff you cannot replicate online.” Lindstrom’s premise is quite compelling, raising doubts as to the efficiency of big data predictive analytics. The more data one has, the more likely the chance that the AI-model does not understand its context or causality. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the scenario of ‘bigger is better’ is coming under scrutiny while ‘small is beautiful’ gains traction. 

The Value of Small Data and the Human Factor

According to the consulting company Accenture, more than three quarters of large companies today still have a ‘data-hungry’ AI initiative under way – projects involving neural networks or deep-learning systems trained on huge repositories of data. For large companies to adapt to a new, disruptive mindset takes time, comparable to the many hours it takes for slowing a huge oil-tanker. Yet, many of the most valuable data sets in organizations are quite small – kilobytes or megabytes rather than exabytes. Because this data lacks the volume and velocity of big data, it is often overlooked and unconnected to enterprise-wide IT innovation initiatives. In a recent study, published by Harvard Business Review Small Data Can Play a Big Role in AI (hbr.org), James Wilson and Paul Daugherty describe the results of  an experiment they conducted with coders working on healthcare applications. Their conclusion is that emerging AI tools and techniques, coupled with careful attention to human factors, are opening new possibilities to train AI with small data. With every large data set (one billion columns and rows or more) used in large AI-projects, a thousand small data sets may go unused. What Wilson and Dougherty learned over the course of the experiment, is that creating and transforming work processes through a combination of small data and AI requires close attention to human factors based on three human-centered principles that can help organizations to get started with their own small data initiatives:

Balance machine learning with human domain expertise. Several AI tools exist for training AI with small data. For example, zero-shot learning tools with only a few examples instead of hundreds of thousands, or transfer-learning tools to move knowledge gained from one task to the learning of new tasks. Both tools, however, rely on human expertise in classifying the reduced datasets.

Focus on the quality of human input, not the quantity of machine output. In the existing system, coders focused on the assessment of  high quantity data. In the new system coders were encouraged to focus less on volume and more on instructing the AI on how to handle a given drug-disease, for example by providing a link to a corresponding website.

Recognize the social dynamics in teams working with small data. In their new roles, the coders quickly came to see themselves not just as teachers of the AI, but as teachers of their fellow coders. Most importantly, they saw that their reputations with other members of the team would rest on their ability to provide solid rationales for their decisions. 


The application of AI-tools enhances the human factor in man-machine systems and above all frees up the resources needed to build a mindset of collaborative intelligence. The continuing rise of complexity, induced by the exponential  growth in research and technology can only be handled by individuals who are willing to share their expertise to keep their organization competitive vis-à-vis the demands of a continuously changing market. The application of tools is, and always will be, a resource for improving productivity. Yet- and most importantly so- data is not an end in itself but a means to an end.

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