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Made to Order: IBM Makes Sense Out of Unstructured Data

Most of us like to have a certain amount of structure in our lives, yet all too frequently the complexity of modern-day living confronts us with what seems more like chaos than order. When that happens, we strive to regain a level of organization that helps us deal with the complexities of our imperfect world.

Much the same holds true in the inanimate world of computerized data, which is increasingly confronted with confusion merely by virtue of its exponential growth. As a result, IBM researchers are developing a series of complex software systems aimed at bringing this seemingly uncontrollable mass of information, known as unstructured data, into an orderly, usable, structured state.

The growth of unstructured data tracks the evolution of computer utilization. During the 1960s, computing was primarily a backroom, punch-card operation, used for basic functions like billing and tracking inventory. Gradually, computers moved to the front office to handle more people-oriented transactions such as making airline and hotel reservations. Most of these tasks could be accomplished by categorizing and accessing information in ordered rows and columns of numbers, known as relational databases. It is precisely this type of routine "grunt work" that computers were originally designed to handle.