Who would have thought that crude oil prices would hit a negative? This new trend shows that nothing is set in stone -Not even the value of oil, the once the most conventionally valuable resource.

All this while we have been calling data the new oil. That’s is perhaps because we have always equated oil with growth and wealth. This narrative has taken quite the turn now primarily because we have all become more familiar with data and its various intrigues. Oil, you see, is valuable. But, for that, you have to find it, collect it and store it.

Can we say the same for data?

Data cannot be the new oil

Not so long-ago organisations woke up to the value of data. They realised that people were generating vast volumes of valuable information that could be used to improve business offerings by understanding the user in finer detail. However, unlike oil, just collecting and storing data does not unlock the box of value. Given the pace at which we are generating data now, data tends to begin losing value almost as soon as it is generated. That is because unless put to use, it starts aging.

All the trends and insights that we can leverage from data come in handy when we gain the capacity to obtain insights in real-time. Of course, historical data is important to understand how trends evolve. But we can no longer rely solely on historical data. Gathering and storing data and not making it work is a pointless exercise.

But why is data the new soil?

We could equate the value of data in the 21st century to that of oil in the 18th century – The next big thing. Oil was then a valuable asset that was still unexploited. And gradually it gave rise to a new economy.

The case was similar with data – it presented itself as a massively unexploited asset that showed tremendous potential and could change the world. And it also gave birth to a new economy. The data deluge continued, and we now find ourselves looking at continuously growing data volumes. Today, data has become an essential element for innovation and sustainable growth in the wake of a digital economy. We are established at a point where without data, any business would come to a halt.

Data cannot be equated to oil any longer amassing data is not equal to assets built. Oil resources are scare while data is not. Data is non-rivalrous, non-depleting, regenerative, and almost unlimited. Unlike oil that can’t be cleaned when you spill it, data can be cleaned and then put to work.

It’s not oil that has these qualities. It is soil that has them.

Data, like soil, is an evolving ecosystem

Soil is a living, breathing ecosystem. The various microorganisms, the water it retains, its inherent structure keeps evolving and changing. To bear fruit from what you plant, it is essential to treat and nurture this soil, understand what it needs, how it needs to be nurtured, what needs to be added, how deep you need to plant a seed, how often you need to weed.

The same is the case with data. Mining and hoarding data is a clump of dry earth that cannot help a plant bear fruit. The data soil has to be tilled, nurtured, and put to work to deliver results.

All soil is not the same – neither is data

Back in school, we learned that there are different kinds of soil – each with its unique characteristics. There’s sandy, loamy, and clayey soil. Some of these soils are great for vegetation and plants. Some for other purposes like pottery. But all are of it can be used. However, you need to know what kind of soil you are working with for competent outputs. Hoping a tree will grow in clayey soil is futile.

Similarly, for data initiatives to work, we need to look beyond spreadsheets or data points on a chart and gain a deep understanding of how this data is supposed to drive business. Data, like soil, is a fertile medium that can be irrigated with networks, connectivity, and a robust tools ecosystem.

Business intelligence, data analytics, data science are tilling tools that help you understand and improve the quality of your data, and make it work the right way to deliver insights that have a tangible business impact.

Get your hands dirty

The quality of the soil is essential when you want the seedlings and plants to flourish. But can you just look at the soil and wish for this to happen? You have to get in there and get your hands dirty. You have to dig, plant, till, water, fertilise and nurture the plant for it to take root and then flourish.

The case is similar with data as well. You have to get in there and get your hands dirty. You have to identify new ways to make the data work. You have to implement new techniques, stretch your imagination, and sift through the mountains of data to see new patterns and connections that matter. You have to irrigate the channels to make data more intelligent by using intelligent algorithms that help you make more sense of the data. And by working this data, you get visualisations and insights- much like the flowers blooming in the soil.

If you look at soil directly, it is nothing but a big mass of dirt. Similarly, if you just look at data in isolation is nothing but a set of disconnected facts and a lot of numbers. It is only when you start working with the data in a specific manner, use the tools to nurture it, irrigate it, clean it and fertilise it that it becomes an asset – a rich, fruit-bearing tree.