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What Is Unstructured Data?

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unstructured data

Unstructured data is data that does not confine itself to a predetermined data model. This lack of structure renders it indecipherable to relational (SQL) databases. Hence, it cannot be easily used in a computer program and should be stored in its raw form in data lakes or non-relational (NoSQL) databases.

According to CIO, unstructured data accounts for up to 90% of the “overall digital data universe.” This data type can be sourced from several channels, including textual data (social media posts, email, chat conversations), survey data, and multimedia such as images, videos, and audio files, resulting in an immense pool of untapped potential.

Unstructured data can be tough to analyze, so business decision-makers may not understand its actual value. Because it lacks a schema or identifiable structure, it must be processed before it can be used effectively. Given that many tools are now available for this purpose, 95% of businesses have indicated that they are prioritizing unstructured data management.

Unstructured data is characterized by:

  • Lack of conformity to the formal structure of a pre-existing data model
  • Incapable of being automatically stored in databases
  • Lack of a solid format or sequence
  • Stored in monolithic data architectures for eventual processing

Other Definitions of Unstructured Data Include:

  • “Typically categorized as qualitative data, [it] cannot be processed and analyzed via conventional data tools and methods. Since unstructured data does not have a predefined data model, it is best managed in non-relational (NoSQL) databases. Another way to manage [it] is to use data lakes to preserve it in raw form.” (IBM)
  • “Data that is not in fixed locations. The term refers to free-form text in business documents and reports, news articles, and social media. For example, [it is] found in word processing files, PDF files, email messages, Internet forums, blogs, Web pages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages.” (PCMag)
  • “Rather than predefined fields in a purposeful format, [it] can come in all shapes and sizes. Though typically text, [it] can come in many forms to be stored as objects: images, audio, video, document files, and other file formats.” (Oracle)
  • “Information, in many different forms, that doesn’t follow conventional data models, making it difficult to store and manage in a mainstream relational database.” (TechTarget

Use Cases Include:

  • Data lakes: Data lakes serve as an ideal storage infrastructure for unstructured data. Their usage has increased since businesses have realized their potential for processing unstructured data.
  • Chatbots: Chatbots continually use unstructured data sourced from customer questions to analyze them and redirect the customer to a relevant answer resource.
  • Social listening: Brands consistently monitor social media platforms using social listening tools to identify trends, feature requests, customer feedback, etc. It can be done by sourcing data from comments, direct messages, posts, stories, tweets, etc.
  • Market research: Unstructured data is often used in market research to discover gaps in the market through surveys, reports, and social media. It is also used for competitor analysis and helps identify opportunities to innovate or outperform.

Business Benefits Include:

  • Widening the data pool and giving stakeholders access to unusual sets of data
  • Addressing business questions that could not be done using structured data
  • Facilitating marketing functions with data-driven and business-specific insights 
  • Tracking customer reviews and feedback via social listening
  • Helping to create hyper-personalized experiences for the customer
  • Enabling more comprehensive capabilities for gap analysis

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