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TheStreet Open House

#DigitalSkeptic: Big Data Is Dumb If You're Smart

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Jesse Vollmar is man enough to admit that it ain't how big a fella's data is, it's how smart he is about using it.

"It's not about the size and sweep of the information you collect," explained the co-founder and CEO of FarmLogs, the Ann Arbor, Mich., agriculture data analysis firm. "It's about knowing enough to ask the right question from that data that a customer wants to know."

This modest Michigan farm boy has been kindly describing to me, over several eye-opening phone calls, the groundbreaking data analysis of his nine-person so-called "smart agriculture" startup. Vollmar and his team got the idea to dig around inside the digital guts of industrial-grade agricultural equipment from mega-makers such as Caterpillar, Deere and Cummins. It turned out that, just as in the car industry, oodles of data-rich features such as global positioning, computer control and climate analysis were being quietly built into the Information Age riffs of farm tools.

"What we realized was it would be super easy to get lost in the gobs of information no farmer really wanted from a combine," Vollmar said. Instead, FarmLogs figured out what really mattered was the relatively modest-scale question of exactly how much rain fell in each bit of each field a farmer manages. "Literally, farmers drive over and look at their inventory every day," he said. "I grew up on a farm, and it's crazy."

With that specific question in mind, Vollmar dispensed with complex large dataset analysis and modeling and rather focused his inner numbers nerd on comparing the small set of numbers that described the location of farm machines to sized government precipitation data.

Miracle of miracles, FarmLogs could magically tell farmers exactly where rain was being made in their fields. "I don't pretend to understand the deep mathematics behind this," he said. "But all I know is as a business person, it's not the numbers we could touch -- it's answering a specific question for a farmer."

The big data Mulligan
Wouldn't you know it, when I actually asked professional numbers geeks -- who make their bones understanding just the kind of deep mathematics behind Vollmar's less-data-is-more experience -- it turned out that this young midwesterner was on the bleeding edge of the Information Age.

"Anybody with half a brain knows that Big Data is important. And academia did get excited about the potential for large data sets for about a half a second," said David Putrino, assistant professor at the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

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