What to do with big data?

Updated: Jul 3



Big data - as good as gold, if you can tame the information tsunami, says Peter Robb, Architecture Practice Lead at Ovations.


The information tsunami they call "big data" has swollen in stature in an upsurge that has economists planning for a new economic asset - like currency or gold. This was the outcome of a report by the World Economic Forum in January 2013. Big data is set to have a glittering future, with Forbes predicting that it will be a market worth $50 billion by 2017.

"Big data" is neither about size nor databases, and is more about the taming of this surge of information and how companies go about managing, analysing and mining the data. "One of the biggest challenges currently is the wide gap between the huge potential big data can bring, and its realisation," says Peter Robb, Architecture Practice Lead at Ovations, a business transformations service provider that has a practice area to assist companies in tackling their progress towards an effective big data ecosystem.


While big data and large-scale data gathering, as well as analytics, are now quickly becoming a new frontier of competitive differentiation - enabling companies to know more about trends, circumstances and context around their customers, Robb suggests that the big bang approach of dealing with big data needs to be carefully assessed, particularly if not carefully aligned with the needs and internal capabilities of an organisation. Apart from the cost involved, applying big data principles may result in diluting the true potential of unearthing the trend gems that already exist.


"It may be that some businesses may only require "small data" at this stage, and they really need to assess their landscape and understand the impact of the change required to implement the big data philosophy," says Robb. "That said, big data can be applied to all sizes of business; it allows smaller organisations that have access to external data to begin building efficient models, enabling them to compete on a different level. This opens new avenues of business and understanding."


Currently, we find large retailers such as Walmart using big data to analyse everything from sales to weather data in order to tailor their product selections; or shipping companies that mine data on traffic patterns in order to fine-tune routing. Even online dating services are analysing big data to sift through Web listings to improve the algorithms for matching men and women on dates. In fact, the impact of data abundance extends well beyond business - reaching into areas such as sports, politics, public health and science.

Despite the size of the business, it is important to look at the scale of implementation. Big data should not necessarily only be implemented at large scale if the organisation is not ready for it. However, if not leveraged, the pursuit of mining big data could leave companies lost in the wake of their competitors. "The one rule of engagement is how to correctly use big data," says Robb. "The true value of mining doesn't come from simply analysing data we already know; value is extracted when we analyse other sources of data, correlate the information, and base our decision-making on it." The key is to have people who can manage and find insights once you have the data. This leads to the next big challenge - the skills shortage in this new era of insight and understanding of data.


By 2015, analyst and market research firm, Gartner, predicts that 4.4 million jobs will be created to support big data. This is in line with its forecast that IT spending on a global scale will increase by 3.8% in 2013 to reach $3.7 trillion - lead by excitement for big data. A new kind of professional has emerged, according to Google's chief economist, Hal Varian. He describes a data scientist as someone who can combine the skills of software programmer, statistician and storyteller to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under the mountains of data. The flip side of that coin is that there are currently no university programmes offering degrees in data science. As Varian said to The Economist: "Data is widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from it." For those present and future that do have these scarce skills - they are set to enjoy what has been labelled as 'The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century'. After all, taming big data will realise big bucks - that's the bottom line.


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