What is unstructured data? How do I find it?


In the information age, organisations produce extraordinary amounts of data, which continues to grow in size every day. And while some of this data is neatly structured in protected systems and databases, the majority of it is in the form of files or documents across the estate, known as unstructured data. 

What is unstructured data?

In the course of everyday business, people create, share, edit and store files containing a range of data and information. This is known as 'unstructured data' and it includes documents, emails, spreadsheets, letters, contracts and files of various types.

Unstructured data is simply digital information that is not arranged according to a pre-defined or organised data model, with fixed rows and columns.  Due to it's lack of structure, this form of data is far more challenging to search and analyse, which combined with the huge scale of stored data is why organisations have tended to neglect it. This presents a challenge for organisations, because employees need to create, edit and share documents and information to do their jobs.

It is estimated that unstructured data accounts for up to 90% of the digital universe [1], and it’s growing at a rate of 65% per year [2]. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority (95%) of businesses cite the need to manage unstructured data as a problem for their business [3].

Unstructured data vs Structured data

Structured data is usually stored in a relational database or RDBMS, whereby tables of data are connected to each other in an organised way.  This type of connected data is sometimes referred to as relational data. It is stored in predictable and easy-to-identify fields within tables, for example, phone numbers, email addresses etc. Structured data is relatively easy to search, assuming you know which columns store the information you require.

By contrast, the irregular nature of unstructured data means that it doesn’t fit into these sorts of pre-defined data models. Unstructured data comes in so many different formats it’s a challenge for organisations to ingest, process and analyse.

Examples of unstructured data

Unstructured data is qualitative rather than quantitative, which means that it is more characteristic and categorical in nature and tends to contain more words than numbers. Think about any kind of data that doesn’t have a consistent structure, this is defined as unstructured data. Here are some examples:

  • Text Files: Includes word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and email files.
  • Media Files: Digital photos, audio, and video files.
  • Mobile and Communications Data: Text messages, phone recordings, and instant messaging.
  • Social Media & Websites: Data from social networks like, LinkedIn, Twitter etc…

In reality of course, even unstructured data has some structure to it - the metadata is always in the same place, and in the case of spreadsheets, some of the data is organised in predictable ways.  Some people call this semi-structured data, because it is possible to make sense of data in a spreadsheet, a little like a database table.

The importance of unstructured data

The biggest issue with unstructured data is that it often contains sensitive information and therefore can pose a high risk to the organisation, and it often becomes shared, duplicated and distributed widely across storage systems. Around two-thirds (65%) of IT professionals believe the sensitive information in unstructured data makes it a struggle to keep their business secure against an information security breach [4].  

With the majority of data generated within organisations today being unstructured, it’s more important than ever that companies find a way to discover and manage their unstructured data to enable them to secure it while also making informed business decisions.

In order to fully understand the importance of unstructured data, organisations need to move away from the data silos and data lake storage model, by having the correct systems in place that uncover, analyse, and report on this data from a variety of sources. Finally allowing organisations to expose the business value found in their unstructured data.

How Exonar Reveal can help with your unstructured data

Exonar Reveal enables you to find and gain true visibility into your organisation's unstructured data, enabling quick assessment of large data sets at scale by means of Exonar Reveal's handy dashboards. It also enables users to drill into specific information from the dashboards but simply clicking through to get a detailed view of what's in documents, beyond just the metadata.

The best way to discover the power of Exonar Reveal's is to see it in action. We’re happy to show you what Exonar can do with your real data in one of our 2-week 'Test Drives'. 

Book a Test Drive and see Exonar Reveal in action!