Michael's Metaphors of Life Journal header image 2

Big Data: Walmart, Twitter and a Hummingbird’s Wings

May 10th, 2013 by Michael Dyet

Hmmm, how big is big data and where do I even begin to get my head wrapped around it?

Big data. It strikes me as rather ironic that this short phrase, which rolls so easily off the tongue, refers to “a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications”.

Since I earn my keep in the marketing profession, I felt compelled to try and get a handle on this concept. So, of course, I turned to Google. I learned that we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day – so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.

So what the heck is a quintillion? Another Google search. The sequence, it seems, goes from million to billion to trillion to quadrillion to quintillion. I get that there is a factor of five involved. Beyond that I’m lost. Let’s try another angle.

Big data sizes, I learn, are a constantly moving target, ranging from a few dozen terabytes to many petabytes. Petabyte? Isn’t that one of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park?

Back to Google for another round. The smallest unit of measure for data is a bit. Now here is terminology I understand. I’m a little bit hungry. But apparently I still don’t understand. A bit is a single binary digit. A byte is 8 bits. A kilobyte is 1,024 bytes. Megabytes… gigabytes… terabytes… perabytes… all the way up to exabytes.

How many exabytes are there in a quintillion? Or is it quintillions in an exabyte? I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Or eschew, for that matter.

I need to put this in a context I can wrap my mind around. Back to my friend Google for some real-life examples of big data:

10,000 payment card transactions are made every second around the world. 10,000 every time I blink. No wonder the debit card system was slow when I paid for my groceries tonight.

Walmart handles more than 1 million customer transactions per hour. Per hour? I think I need to buy a terabyte of Walmart shares.

340 million tweets are sent per day. That equates to 4,000 tweets per second. Dare I ask how many bytes are there in a tweet?

I’m spinning my wheels and getting a perabyte of a headache in the process. Let`s take one more run at the equation:

Decoding the human genome originally took 10 years to process. Now it can be achieved in one week. And yet, they still can’t cure the common cold. Something doesn’t compute.

But it’s May and the migration is in full spring. This weekend I might just see the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season flapping it wings up to 80 times per second which equates to 4,800 times per minute. Now there’s a metaphor for big data that I can appreciate. And frankly, I really don’t care how that translates into gigabytes.

~ Michael Robert Dyet is the author of “Until the Deep Water Stills – An Internet-enhanced Novel” – double winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards 2009. Visit Michael’s website at or the novel online companion at

~ Subscribe to “Michael’s Metaphors of Life Journal aka Things That Make Me Go Hmmm” at its’ internet home Instructions for subscribing are provided in the “Subscribe to this Blog: How To” instructions page in the right sidebar. If you’re reading this post on another social networking site, come back regularly to my page for postings once a week.

Tags:   · · · · · · · No Comments