The Oil-Data Comparison Is Only Half a Metaphor

by Todd J. Fisher, Thursday, November 3, 2022

Unrefined data is like unrefined oil – messy and useless. But boy does it have potential. Like oil, data can be refined, processed, and put to use in ways that add enormous value to those with access to refined data in all its forms. The oil-data metaphor has certainly “made the rounds” and is getting “long in the tooth,” but the cliché “sticks like glue,” because, as a cliché, the oil-data metaphor does express a truth that is hard to deny. 

This comparison is nothing new.  Michael Palmer imagined this very metaphor in 2006 in his blog post, Data is the New Oil. Folks have been talking about data as a raw material of value in the digital age of industry ever since. 

Such metaphors are certainly helpful, shedding light on otherwise obscured issues. It is, however, necessary to think deeply when considering such “key words and tricky phrases.” The oil-data metaphor provides an interesting comparison that does offer insight into the nature of data as a raw resource. To uncover a more complete picture of how best to deal with data, it’s worth looking beyond the compare side, and on to the contrast side of the ledger to gain valuable insight. 

Unlike oil, data is a very rapidly renewable resource. In fact, several studies peg the current data creation rate at approximately 69 trillion bytes per second. At that rate, we have created way more data since this time in 2012 than existed in the entire world in 2006 when Michael Palmer wrote his insightful blog post. Moreover, the rate of data creation is accelerating. So, unlike the laborious challenges associated with finding oil to refine, we are faced with a different challenge. 

In the midst of a data deluge we must capture, refine, and use data before it is lost or becomes stale. Deliberate thoughtfulness must give way to thoughtful urgency when moving on any data analytics strategy. For every second of indecision, 69 trillion bytes of data (and growing) whip by your window, are grabbed by your competitors and refined, processed, and turned to gold. Don’t stand inside when it is raining gold outside.

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