Approaching Big Data Differently

Big Data

Big data has been hailed as the answer to all your company’s future strategies and plans, but many operations aren’t using their resources effectively. The promise of big data to deliver solutions to business problems has not yet reached its full potential, and in some cases it’s not delivering on its promises at all. Organisations can be drowning in data but accruing little or no value to it. This is where some key principles come into play to ensure you make the most out of your big data services.

Understand Where Your Data Is Coming From

Firstly, it’s important to understand not only the data you have currently, but the areas where data growth is coming from and the new sources of data open to organisations. In this connected age we have more sources of data than we could have imagined several years ago, and with the promise of a greater number of connected devices and sensors in an Internet of Things (IoT) scenario, we are about to endure a data downpour. So, where does the value come from?

Companies being successful in the big data space at present are still only using a relatively small percentage (<20%) of their data to drive value, and typically this is the classically structured data. As we move forward, and the tools and capabilities increase, then we have the opportunity to see the value of data in places we didn’t expect: unstructured data can come in many forms from simple documents to social media sources, but can also come from items such as news feeds and connected device outputs.

The challenge in this phase is to start understanding how to store and manage the data, ensuring that it becomes valuable business information. Understanding the data sources, and what may actually have value, is much more difficult. The temptation may be to simply store everything and hope.  The term ‘Data Lake’ has become synonymous with this approach, but I possibly prefer the term ‘Digital Landfill’, which a customer used with me recently. More and more the understanding of data becomes the key to success.

Be Realistic

Big data may be the cure the all your woes, but right now it’s not. We know there is hidden value in an organisation’s data, but understand that the route to value is a long and winding one, with several roadblocks along the way. Don’t think that you’re being left behind: only a small number of companies are using data successfully right now, and if you’re one of them I salute you. Data can supply answers to questions you’ve not yet thought of, and these answers generate more questions. Finally, understand what data is quality and what is simply quantity. Whilst each may have value, these can be exclusive to different departments within your organisation. However, today, very little data is actually worthless.

Be Open With Your Data

Thirdly, be as open as you can with your data. For many companies this may simply mean opening data sources to all employees, but for others, opening data to a wider audience can bring substantial benefits. The UK FutureCities initiative is a fantastic example of both crowd-sourcing data whilst actually using it to the benefit of the contributors. Being able to understand the movement of people through a city and correlating this with several different variables such as time, route and means of transport allows cities to operate efficiently, becoming safer and saving money from tightening budgets.

Being open with your data allows answers to come from unexpected places. People by nature are naturally curious: there are employees in every workplace who will take several sources of data and, through data visualisation tools, come up with correlations not previously visible within companies. Look for people who understand the business challenges, give them the data they need and the tools to look at the data and cut them loose. In short, look for people who like a challenge or to solve a puzzle.

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Bill McGloin

Bill McGloin, who started work at Computacenter in December 2011 as a technology leader for the services unit, is currently Chief Technologist at Computacenter.