Data Mining: What is Data Mining?


Generally, data mining (sometimes called data or knowledge discovery) is the process of analyzing data from different perspectives and summarizing it into useful information - information that can be used to increase revenue, cuts costs, or both. Data mining software is one of a number of analytical tools for analyzing data. It allows users to analyze data from many different dimensions or angles, categorize it, and summarize the relationships identified. Technically, data mining is the process of finding correlations or patterns among dozens of fields in large relational databases.

Continuous Innovation

Although data mining is a relatively new term, the technology is not. Companies have used powerful computers to sift through volumes of supermarket scanner data and analyze market research reports for years. However, continuous innovations in computer processing power, disk storage, and statistical software are dramatically increasing the accuracy of analysis while driving down the cost.


For example, one Midwest grocery chain used the data mining capacity of Oracle software to analyze local buying patterns. They discovered that when men bought diapers on Thursdays and Saturdays, they also tended to buy beer. Further analysis showed that these shoppers typically did their weekly grocery shopping on Saturdays. On Thursdays, however, they only bought a few items. The retailer concluded that they purchased the beer to have it available for the upcoming weekend. The grocery chain could use this newly discovered information in various ways to increase revenue. For example, they could move the beer display closer to the diaper display. And, they could make sure beer and diapers were sold at full price on Thursdays.

Data, Information, and Knowledge


Data are any facts, numbers, or text that can be processed by a computer. Today, organizations are accumulating vast and growing amounts of data in different formats and different databases. This includes:


The patterns, associations, or relationships among all this data can provide information. For example, analysis of retail point of sale transaction data can yield information on which products are selling and when.


Information can be converted into knowledge about historical patterns and future trends. For example, summary information on retail supermarket sales can be analyzed in light of promotional efforts to provide knowledge of consumer buying behavior. Thus, a manufacturer or retailer could determine which items are most susceptible to promotional efforts.

Data Warehouses

Dramatic advances in data capture, processing power, data transmission, and storage capabilities are enabling organizations to integrate their various databases into data warehouses. Data warehousing is defined as a process of centralized data management and retrieval. Data warehousing, like data mining, is a relatively new term although the concept itself has been around for years. Data warehousing represents an ideal vision of maintaining a central repository of all organizational data. Centralization of data is needed to maximize user access and analysis. Dramatic technological advances are making this vision a reality for many companies. And, equally dramatic advances in data analysis software are allowing users to access this data freely. The data analysis software is what supports data mining.

What can data mining do?

Data mining is primarily used today by companies with a strong consumer focus - retail, financial, communication, and marketing organizations. It enables these companies to determine relationships among "internal" factors such as price, product positioning, or staff skills, and "external" factors such as economic indicators, competition, and customer demographics. And, it enables them to determine the impact on sales, customer satisfaction, and corporate profits. Finally, it enables them to "drill down" into summary information to view detail transactional data.

With data mining, a retailer could use point-of-sale records of customer purchases to send targeted promotions based on an individual's purchase history. By mining demographic data from comment or warranty cards, the retailer could develop products and promotions to appeal to specific customer segments.

For example, Blockbuster Entertainment mines its video rental history database to recommend rentals to individual customers. American Express can suggest products to its cardholders based on analysis of their monthly expenditures.

WalMart is pioneering massive data mining to transform its supplier relationships. WalMart captures point-of-sale transactions from over 2,900 stores in 6 countries and continuously transmits this data to its massive 7.5 terabyte Teradata data warehouse. WalMart allows more than 3,500 suppliers, to access data on their products and perform data analyses. These suppliers use this data to identify customer buying patterns at the store display level. They use this information to manage local store inventory and identify new merchandising opportunities. In 1995, WalMart computers processed over 1 million complex data queries.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is exploring a data mining application that can be used in conjunction with image recordings of basketball games. The Advanced Scout software analyzes the movements of players to help coaches orchestrate plays and strategies. For example, an analysis of the play-by-play sheet of the game played between the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 6, 1995 reveals that when Mark Price played the Guard position, John Williams attempted four jump shots and made each one! Advanced Scout not only finds this pattern, but explains that it is interesting because it differs considerably from the average shooting percentage of 49.30% for the Cavaliers during that game.

By using the NBA universal clock, a coach can automatically bring up the video clips showing each of the jump shots attempted by Williams with Price on the floor, without needing to comb through hours of video footage. Those clips show a very successful pick-and-roll play in which Price draws the Knick's defense and then finds Williams for an open jump shot.

How does data mining work?

While large-scale information technology has been evolving separate transaction and analytical systems, data mining provides the link between the two. Data mining software analyzes relationships and patterns in stored transaction data based on open-ended user queries. Several types of analytical software are available: statistical, machine learning, and neural networks. Generally, any of four types of relationships are sought:

Data mining consists of five major elements:

Different levels of analysis are available:

What technological infrastructure is required?

Today, data mining applications are available on all size systems for mainframe, client/server, and PC platforms. System prices range from several thousand dollars for the smallest applications up to $1 million a terabyte for the largest. Enterprise-wide applications generally range in size from 10 gigabytes to over 11 terabytes. NCR has the capacity to deliver applications exceeding 100 terabytes. There are two critical technological drivers:

Relational database storage and management technology is adequate for many data mining applications less than 50 gigabytes. However, this infrastructure needs to be significantly enhanced to support larger applications. Some vendors have added extensive indexing capabilities to improve query performance. Others use new hardware architectures such as Massively Parallel Processors (MPP) to achieve order-of-magnitude improvements in query time. For example, MPP systems from NCR link hundreds of high-speed Pentium processors to achieve performance levels exceeding those of the largest supercomputers.

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