What is Tiny Data and why is it crucial?

We all know that Big Data is cack.

“So if you don’t like Big Data, what’s your alternative then?”, I hear nobody cry.

There’s all sorts of data, here’s some definitions I just made up.


Big Data:
Data and lots of it, used for analysis to look for patterns and correlations, often from all over the shop. A bit like the TV programme “Through The Keyhole”, you  look at everything and try and work out [puts on voice]  who would live in a house like this.
Example: Netflix snooping on your choice of smutty art films.

Small Data:
Data an organisation currently holds, often as a by-product of buying something silly like a CRM monster. Used to manage work or produce performance reports for other people elsewhere. This stuff has been sloshing around for ages and is what people automatically think of when measures are mentioned.
Example: a phone system snitching on how long humans are taking to pick up the phone.

Tiny Data:
The most important data there is.
I call it tiny data as in most organisations it’s invisible or it doesn’t exist. Think Magic Elves. It is collected when someone needs to know something useful about their work  process so they can take informed action. This is why it mainly doesn’t exist.
Example: a five-bar gate count of customer demands, written down by the member of staff who speaks with customers.


These elves look so evil they’re as likely to hammer nails into your soul as your sole.

  How to create Tiny Data

  1. Establish purpose. Not by writing it down, not by consensus, not by looking it up in a document,  purpose is forensically excavated from the muddy earth of the work.
  2. Now you know purpose, find out what you need to measure to understand how capable you are at meeting it.
  3. Does it help you understand what is happening and why, does it connect actions and consequences? Does it help people learn from it, to improve?

NB Collation of Tiny Data may require the purchase of special equipment such as a pencil and notepad.

Why Tiny Data rules


Big and Small data are by-products, created as a consequence of someone somewhere else doing something else.
Tiny Data is created because it is needed to find out about the work. It never exists unless it is useful.
Tiny Data is born of purpose!


Relying on the stuff that’s already there is lazy. Tiny data forces you think about what it is your measuring and what you will do with it.
Tiny Data is lead by purpose!


If you want to keep it close to hand, it’s not going anywhere. Nobody will come to audit or  change it’s definition, frankly the sort of frotteuristic no-mark who does that type of thing for a living couldn’t even see your lovely Tiny Data as being worth pressing themselves against, as it isn’t official. So you use it. It’s yours.


Tiny Data can’t be damaged by being frog-marched into quartile rankings by officious Performance Management Officers, because they don’t exist as official measures. They aren’t on the comparator lists or on scorecards, so they exist below the noses of the Performance Managementers without ever being noticed. This means Tiny Data escapes being used in a reporting mechanism, it escapes the influence of gaming and targets. It retains its usefulness.

Even as a useless Policy Officer I have managed to horde Tiny Data, so if I can anybody can.

What Tiny Data are you collecting to help understand and improve?

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9 Responses to What is Tiny Data and why is it crucial?

  1. dancarins says:

    And surely Big Data needs humongous samples from mega Spy Companies like Google, which means that it’s pretty useless for small organisations as a tool to analyse customer demand and effectiveness etc.

    However, at least it’s one of those fads that raises awareness of the use of data and the need to collect it. Maybe. Either that or it encourages manager to throw lots of money at Google to get some “analytics” and then sack people.


  2. ThinkPurpose says:

    I think, as an ignoramus about Big Data, that my antipathy to it is because of the thinking it encourages. The “hands-off” its-for-experts approach, making decisions separate and far far away from where it might be applied. Whereas Tiny Data, that it’s home-crafted and hand hewn, strictly FOR “amateurs”.


  3. Charles Beauregard says:

    Just read another blog post this morning which makes a similar point: http://thestoryoftelling.com/demographics-vs-worldviews/


  4. Alan Stanton says:

    “Home-crafted and hand hewn, strictly FOR ‘amateurs’.”
    I think one of us is missing something here. Or perhaps I’ve completely misunderstood what you are saying?

    Home-crafted hand hewn data is essential. But it’s neither amateur; nor “For” amateurs. It’s what the best and most rooted-in-reality professional sociologists and anthropologists observe and report. But neither are their “respondents” – the people they observe or who them things – “amateur” when, for example, a “respondent” explains things they do when earning their living.

    Are you suggesting that tiny data must be kept only by the individual creating it for their own purpose?

    A friend of mine told me of a worrying conversation with a health visitor and a midwife about visiting pregnant women who were living in very poor conditions in Homes in Multiple occupation. Tiny data for a limited purpose. But possibly part of a wider pattern which needs investigation to safeguard the health of these mothers and their babies.

    * Do you know about John Snow and cholera? http://bit.ly/eEvRo

    * Have you come across “The AntiPolitics Machine” by James Ferguson? http://stanford.io/19lj2Sj

    * Can I also mention the idea of an “ethnography of dumping” as one useful approach to preventing litter, dumping and fly-tipping. This was put forward by Liz Ixer one of the admins of Harringay Online Community website. (At one time Liz took part in a Council organised group of “Community Volunteers”) I suppose it was, in your terms, “tiny data” from her day-to-day street observations which pointed to patterns and interpretations. Needless to say, not for a sociological paper at a conference, but which could suggest small practical problem-solving experiments.
    Should anyone with power be open-minded enough to listen and act.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      A blog of 500 words always simplifies.
      I don’t do well researched. (See my About page).
      Amateurs is in question marks for a reason.
      And I’m always typing from my own perspective of policy officer in local government. Decent useful data keeps its head WELL below the parapet here if it knows what’s good for it.


  5. Alan Stanton says:

    Sorry for typo.Sentence should have written:
    “respondents” – the people they observe or who tell them things…”


  6. Alan Stanton says:

    I understand why people have to keep their *heads* well below the parapet. (When I was younger, jobs were a lot easier to find than now.) But I disagree that this means people should keep their *data* hidden down below as well.
      You use your own anonymous blog to share your own insights and ideas by lobbing them high into the public domain. Press on!
      Though if my own experience is any guide, you may have a small, select and possibly very frustrated audience; who are sadly aware that the organisation they work in “knows” far far less then the sum of what its staff know.. And also that most of what members of staff know is inside their heads. And so it leaves with them; when they move to another job; or retire; are replaced by a Call Centre etc.
      Sometimes people will also experience one-step-forward-two-steps-back. Small victories using small data can be overturned – based on old thinking, not new evidence.
      In 1854 Dr John Snow mapped a cluster of cholera cases in Soho, pointing to the likely cause as water from a pump in Broad (now Broadwick) Street. The local Board of Guardians authorised removal of the pump handle. The handle was later replaced when the outbreak subsided.


  7. ThinkPurpose says:

    Thanks for the comments, theyre all very interesting. I tend to take a broad brush approach to subjects as it’s more fun. “All” tends to mean “most”, and “most” means “some”, and “never” should be read as “rarely”.


  8. phillip says:

    would you please to give me an example of tiny data? I have read many times but i haven’t understanded what you said


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