Techsplaining 101: Big data and business intelligence

by Elizabeth Parsons, IT Services

You’ve no doubt heard the term “big data” in reference to huge, sometimes nebulous sets of information that are used by large companies to inform decision making. But what about in higher education? How do business intelligence tools help schools like Miami get the most out of the data we collect?

Let’s take a look at some of the key characteristics of “big data” and business intelligence, then dive into how data is used at Miami:

First, some tech terms: Big data

What is big data? It’s a valid question and one that can have a different meaning depending on what field you’re in and how you’re talking about it. TechTarget broadly defines “big data” as sets of structured and unstructured information collected to be used by analytics tools for a particular purpose, often artificial intelligence or machine-learning projects. Basically: It’s all the quantifiable information we collect.

How much data actually is there? The more we use technology, the more data we create.

To illustrate this point, a short diversion: Moore’s Law, first recognized in 1975, states that the number of transistors on microchips will double every two years, and that prediction has held strong since then. While semiconductor advancement has slowed somewhat since 2010, Moore’s Law is still generally accepted by the technology community as common knowledge.

Much like transistors on a microchip, the world’s data is also on an exponential growth trajectory. In general, from 2010 to 2020, sources indicated that the world’s data roughly doubled every two years. Even now in 2022, stored data doubles every four years, on the order of multiple zettabytes of information. Yes, that’s zettabytes with a Z.

That’s… a lot of information.

So what do we do with it all? This is where business intelligence comes in.

Be intelligent with all that business

What is business intelligence? David Schaefer, director of the business intelligence team here in IT Services, said:

“Business intelligence refers to the ability to look at historical data to make better decisions for the future. Its goal is to find insights.”

The ultimate goal of finding insights (i.e., being intelligent with the data you gather) is key here. Schaefer stressed: “By bringing different sources of data together, one can discover trends.”

Essentially, business intelligence is the practice of taking all that information – a comprehensive look at all the data collected by the organization – and finding trends that can help us become more efficient, work more effectively, and provide better service to our customers (which, in Miami’s case, would be the students). Using data to make better decisions can positively impact student, business, and project outcomes.

A couple more terms we should remember: data lakes and data warehouses. The former refers to unstructured data that has been collected and stored by various organizations, but its purpose has not yet been defined. Data warehouses, on the other hand, contain structured data that has already been organized with a defined purpose in mind.

The power of will as seen through data at Miami

The business intelligence team in IT Services helps teams across the University harness the power of data to improve processes and track activities. We take that information and create dashboards within the Business Intelligence tools so that offices can visualize the data they have collected.

“Miami uses data for all kinds of purposes,” Schaefer said. “There are the typical types of uses, where offices track key measures of their operations and where the University provides required data to the state and federal governments. There are offices at the University using data to support students toward academic achievements and help them graduate.”

There are big-picture projects using data, as well. For example, right now, the BI team is working on a project for University Advancement.


“They are taking various data about prospective donors, figuring out how to organize it, and then loading it into new structures in the data warehouse,” Schaefer said.

This will help University Advancement track trends and measure key indicators, which will in turn help them reach fundraising goals and maintain positive relationships with alumni.

All of this is to say: Data is everywhere, and at Miami, we are using it every day. We are especially excited to celebrate Miami's commitment to big data and data science with the new Richard M. McVey Data Science Building, which is under construction now and predicted to open in 2024.

Want even more information about big data and how our teams use it to inform projects and create cool visualizations for folks across the University? Get to know our Business Intelligence team! Sign up for BI workshops, and more.

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