Is There Value in Unstructured Data?

By Larry Alton

One of the biggest challenges for modern businesses isn’t being able to collect data, but finding a way to organize it systematically and using the data that piles up. Learning how to interpret random data points and unstructured information often proves to be more than some companies can handle, but it doesn’t have to be.

“Increasing the volume of quality content being fed into big data analytics tools dramatically increases the value of the output – whether it’s improved decision-making or better product design, risk reduction, and enhanced customer experience,” Scott Mackey writes for Adlib Software, a global leader in files analytics and data enrichment solutions. “To realize these benefits, however, organizations must develop the capability to process massive storehouses of unstructured data into a format that big data analytics tools can work with.”

Unstructured data, also known as “dark data,” poses a potential risk on multiple fronts. For starters, it represents a huge missed opportunity in terms of information that could be used to benefit the company’s bottom line.

But the issue goes much deeper than that. In an age when data needs to be encrypted and properly stored, unstructured data is often extremely vulnerable to getting hacked or stolen.

“When data isn’t used, there is a tendency for people to forget its content, purpose or even its existence,” data expert John Spacey explains. “There is a further tendency for such data to go unmanaged and be more vulnerable to security risks, such as unauthorized access that may leak trade secrets and other proprietary knowledge.”

Unstructured data is also resource-intensive and expensive to maintain. It can divert attention from the structured data that the firm needs to stay focused on.

The question is, how do you find value in something that appears so useless? In order to identify the true value in unstructured data, you need a plan of attack. The following tips should help you achieve some positive movement in this endeavor.

1. Get everyone on the same page.
The first step is to ensure everyone is on the same page. Specifically, gatekeepers and decision-makers within the firm must see the importance of tapping into unstructured data so it can be used for practical purposes.

2. Figure out where unstructured data is coming from.
Where is your unstructured data coming from? In other words, what’s the point of ingestion? It might be your website, social media profiles, system log files, healthcare information, financial data, CRM outputs, or a mobile app. If you don’t nail the point of entry, it will be nearly impossible to do anything else with the material.

3. Categorize ASAP.
The best time to apply structure to unstructured data is at the point of ingestion. Once you’ve figured out when and where the information comes from, you may implement systems that will filter and channel the data.

4. Eliminate the waste.
Although a lot of unstructured data can be valuable, there’s likely to be plenty that’s worthless for your organization. Instead of keeping that content around, go ahead and eliminate the waste. This will reduce your overhead and prevent energy from being expended on activities that don’t matter.

5. Combine unstructured and structured data.
Perhaps the best way to use unstructured data is to place it alongside appropriate structured data. When the two play nicely together, they can generate some surprisingly powerful and deep insights that neither would provide in isolation.

“While structured data is often easier to process and analyze, it can only reveal overall trends – not the reason behind those changes,” explains Eric Pendleton, a project training manager at a text analytics firm.

“Unstructured data can reveal a deep understanding of the why behind the data; it’s just more difficult to track and may be dismissed by skeptical executives who reason that ‘it’s just what a few people say.' "

By combining the “what” (structured data) with the “how” and “why” (unstructured data), you will gain a much more complete and cohesive picture of reality … particularly as it pertains to customer-facing endeavours.

Collecting data for the sake of amassing information is pointless. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up responsible for massive repositories of information, with nothing to show for it.

But if you develop a strategy for handling unstructured data, you may flip the script and make the most of the information-centric environment your business finds itself having to inhabit.

Larry Alton ( is a freelance journalist covering issues related to technology and data security. This post originally appeared on the ISACA blog, which can be viewed here.


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