June 4, 2013 7:46 pm

Building a ‘Big Data’ strategy

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We can now predict fires in the Amazon rainforest six months before they occur by analysing sea surface data, help arrest a shoplifter who tweets outside the store by analysing social sentiment and geolocation data, and determine whether surgery is the best course of action for a patient by assessing trends across large numbers of lung cancer patients.

The data-driven economy is upon us. First-generation internet companies such as Google and Amazon, have demonstrated “data alchemy” - turning data into gold - and now others realise that great opportunity can be seized by using big data and the big ideas that come along with it.

But generating ideas and knowing which ones to pursue is difficult. One way to get started with big data is to conceive scenarios of extracting insights for decision-making and operational efficiency by taking advantage of the “four internets.” Separately identifiable, virtual Internets of people, of things, of data and of ideas are emerging to enable broader collaboration and knowledge, but are also an invaluable source of big data to fuel advances in business capabilities.

The Internet of People

The Internet of People is represented by the set of interconnected information about individuals, including their social and collective activities and interests, their attitudes, and their images, audio and video. This can offer segmented and holistic views on human behavior, perceptions and interactions in space and time. At its core, it is about customer centricity. Businesses can explore the use of big data by asking the ultimate question ‘What can I do together with you?’ instead of the more traditional, ‘what can I do to you?’

The Internet of People allows organisations to expand business processes beyond the borders of the enterprise. This enables the fashion industry, for example, to find the next craze before it occurs by analysing what people talk about in social media. Or, companies can invite customers to help solve problems and exploit opportunities by giving them rewards and incentives or find what makes individuals more positive or negative and adjust the business accordingly.

In another scenario, businesses identify what they wanted to know all along about the customer - if they had unlimited capabilities. Big data technologies can help find patterns for areas such as, who are the customers of our customers? What do our patients, accountable for the highest costs, have in common? How do we make connections between seemingly disparate people, places and events to detect fraud?

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is the data that represents the connections between the physical and digital worlds. It is growing at an unprecedented rate because of the lowering cost of the components that are turning “things” into parts of a network. Whenever there is a possibility to get information about a physical object or a process by instrumenting it with sensors, RFID tags, transmitters, GPSs, logs and other means of sending information via wired or wireless networks, there are opportunities to analyse the data and find new patterns.

Sensors can transmit information from the hardest-to-reach places, such as a working engine, a human body or a pipeline segment in a remote location.

McKenney, the mechanical contractor firm, developed Business Intelligence for Buildings by tracking trends and performance over extended periods. It optimises the uses of energy, water and indoor air quality across hundreds of buildings to achieve new levels of cost efficiency, such as reducing energy usage by 5 per cent to 10 per cent. In another example, Jawbone Up is a personal system that combines a wristband and phone application to track how people sleep, move and eat to know themselves better and make smarter choices to feel better.

To utilise event-driven data from things, companies explore how to prevent undesirable events such as device breakdowns, traffic jams or cyberattacks. They can also assess how to maximise positive events. These include areas such as reordering parts, administering medication or finding parking on a busy street.

The Internet of Data

The Internet of Data is about bridging information silos to understand physical, societal and business environments. It achieves this by connecting data at scale, both inside and outside the enterprise.

The most obvious characteristic of the Internet of Data is variety: text, logs, images, video and geolocation, combined into a data fabric, to hold the information that organisations wanted to have all along. The accelerating liberation of data is the sign of a more open society and, consequently, more open and available information. Many governments provide data about demographics, economy, weather and the well-being of their citizens. Commercial entities seek to monetise their own data.

Companies should seek data-derived opportunities by detecting behavior in groups, fraud or life cycle patterns to gain new or even breakthrough insights. For example, because of linking and analysing longitudinal patient data, family history, genetics and reference data, a healthcare provider can discover a new treatment for a particular patient based on treatment results for “similar” patients.

Or, companies can develop data-driven business models and information products by combining their own data, data sources from partners, and purchased information or open data. It’s also important to drive business strategy by making data-driven choices and find where evidence-based analysis can substitute or complement a “gut feel.”

The Internet of Ideas

The Internet of Ideas is about the power of connected minds. It involves humans at scale and aggregates individual ideas about societal, business and physical environments through crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, leveraging open-source products and integrating ideas from outside the enterprise.

In 2000, Goldcorp made an unprecedented decision to open up its proprietary geological data for the “Goldcorp challenge,” a public competition to find gold in its Canadian mine. Out of the top five entries, four have been drilled, and all four struck gold. Since then, Goldcorp has grown from a $100m company to a $9bn company.

The complementary strengths of humans and technologies are mutually reinforcing. Opportunities for finding cost-effective solutions that involve human touch include business processes where instead of separating people, organisations combine human and machine intelligence for better outcomes or make decisions by relying on machine analytics. Think of the two mediocre players who used a laptop running a commercial chess program to best the chess machine that had beaten a grand master on its own.

The Internet of Ideas also provides solutions for getting new ideas from outside sources or that need multiple perspectives or statistically significant representation of participants. Factual, a location-based technology company, maintains a crowdsourced definitive database of 66m local business and point-of-interest listings across 50 countries. In this case, submissions by thousands of people create detailed information that could not be obtained without individual inputs on a mass scale. Organisations can treat human minds as an equally possible analytical and business solution to find scenarios where they can benefit from crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and the expansion of enterprise borders.

New opportunities require the mental shift toward accepting big data realities. Organisations must revisit the problems that were once impossible or impractical to solve: the answers were contained in the data all along, but they were hard to extract with old technologies.

When organisations allow themselves to ask bigger questions of people, things, data and ideas in today’s interconnected world, they can find new answers to derive business value from big data.

Svetlana Sicular is a research director at Gartner covering data governance, enterprise information management strategy and big data. Marcus Collins is a research director at Gartner covering data architecture, data and information integration, database management system evaluation and selection, database architecture and emerging technologies (big data, NoSQL).

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