Big data is capable of making a big impact on the bottom line of businesses. The term describes the exponential growth and availability of data, which businesses are eager to exploit. But this overwhelming abundance of data is important to businesses only if they are able to accurately analyze it in a timely manner, which can lead to more confident decision making. The term also refers to the field of technology evolving to handle these mountains of data, enabling better targeting of audiences and determining of their needs as well as efficiencies and cost reductions in operations.
Associate Professor Uday Kulkarni, Ph.D., at the ASU W. P. Carey School of Business says major corporations are harnessing big data and using it through analytics to make decisions. “Those who are at the forefront are getting a competitive advantage,” Kulkarni says. “For example, airlines know exactly what to charge customers and how to wow them through consumer behavior analysis. This is happening in big data now.”
Dr. Kulkarni explains, “Consumers leave a trail of their behavior any time they touch anything with respect to the organization. Navigating through website clicks leaves a trail behind. Calls made and captured through machines, including an analysis of the emotion and sentiment, understand fully what is going on. These are the sorts of things that big data is about to unleash.”
In addition, customers leave traces in other places, such as their social networks, their interactions with other businesses and competitors. “Combining all this data and integrating it and analyzing it in order to optimize the cost versus making a decision — that’s big data,” Kulkarni says. “Data management is a big part of it. The other part is analytics — what do we do with the data? What type of math models, statistical models, optimization techniques can be used to make sense of this huge amount of data? That is something where we need to develop expertise.”
It is estimated that 4.4 million data analysts will be needed worldwide by 2015. To meet the demand, Arizona State University is offering a new degree program in the areas of big data, supply chain management and finance. The goal is to develop professionals who can analyze the mountains of data coming into companies through social media, networking with customers, cash register hits and other sources. So popular is the big data program that ASU plans to double its size next semester.
Ipro Tech in north Phoenix develops advanced software solutions used by legal professionals. “We facilitate law firms and corporations to look at their data for litigation cases,” says Kim Taylor, president. “Documents go back and forth from opposing sides, and over the last 25 years as documents became more digital, law firms and corporations had to change the way they litigate. We provide law firms, corporations and service providers with the technology to be able to manage the influx of digital data for these large litigation cases.”
Citing a comparison to the 250 parties and 200 million documents in the Enron financial scandal case more than a decade ago, Taylor relates that Ipro currently has a client in a case involving some 900 million documents. “All cases today require a certain amount of expertise and software help for the legal industry to manage the amount of data that comes from everywhere.” To find that expertise, Taylor relies on ASU, and had two interns from the university working at his firm on a day in mid-February. “People are the hardest commodity to find,” he says. “As data grows and complexity grows, having someone who understands data is mission critical. Working with ASU is a must for us.”
Other Arizona players in the Big Data field include Intel and Scottsdale-headquartered OneNeck IT Solutions, a wholly owned subsidiary of Telephone and Data Systems, Inc. Jeff Budge, director of product strategy at OneNeck, tells how big data benefits certain businesses. For example, a passenger and freight rail provider receives data from sensors on a train’s location, whether there is a problem on the tracks, and if it’s on time. “They incorporate data from traffic managers and weather news, and get it to the dispatcher as a benefit to the customer,” Budge says. “The biggest challenge is to figure out how to combine all that data.”
Call centers and service centers are considered candidates for big data solutions, enabling these operations to properly and quickly route customer calls. Budge recalls having worked with an auto manufacturer on a product similar to OnStar. “You have data coming from the car — where the passengers are and whether a child is in the back seat is relayed over wireless or satellite — traffic information; weather; the name, address and phone number of the driver; and existing medical conditions,” Budge says. “In that case, big data combines that information very rapidly. If there was a crash, we know if the air bags deployed, if it’s a fender bender or whether emergency service is needed. We want to be able to take that information and send it directly to the person who answers the phone.”
Yet another big data client could be a hotel with a bad rating in a bad part of town. “Why would you sink money into it?” Budge asks. “Why renovate? Perhaps there is positive information from the chamber of commerce. Maybe the county or state is going to revitalize the area. Combining those seeming disconnected bits of data could help me direct my investment in the right location. Perhaps I can be on the front end or be a catalyst to drive the revitalization of a specific area.”
Joshua Cork, business intelligence manager for Intel, says big data is getting into genomics, the gas and oil industries and others operating on a huge scale. And supply chains are looking at big data. A company like Intel that ships hundreds of thousands of packages worldwide can place sensors on packages, individual units, boxes, containers and trucks, collecting minute-by-minute data on temperature, humidity and vibration. If the shipping lane is at risk for vibration, a company can switch to a different carrier. If weather becomes a problem in the supply chain, a company can reroute or ship from a different location. “That’s an enormous amount of data,” Cork says.
Amazon, which has a huge presence in the Phoenix area, touts its Simple Storage Service (S3) to cope with big data, “whether you’re storing pharmaceutical data for analysis, financial data for computation and pricing, or multimedia files such as photos and videos,” says a company spokesperson. This is the same system the retail giant uses, itself, to handle the massive amounts of data coming from its websites.
But even small start-ups can profit from big data, Cork says. He mentions manufacturers of wearable technology as candidates for big data, citing a wrist-band monitor he wears that tracks such things as heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration, and tells him how his fitness level compares to others in his age group. Experts say technology advances will reduce costs and make big data available to a wider business audience, and even at this stage of development some cloud-based software programs are available that can handle big data, but at a considerably slower pace. However, a comprehensive solution is still considered too costly for midsized and small companies.
Says Budge, “I don’t think midsized companies will pursue big data as strongly until something makes it more affordable or more standard. Right now, it’s more of a custom-built system every time. It is not industry focused.” But even as technology improves, there will always be the human capital expense of hiring data analysts — Budge calls them smart people — who can figure out how to connect the data.