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Data: It’s not the size, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The feverish clamour in the press following the announcement that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram would be merging their messaging platforms is the perfect example of how widely misunderstood the concept of ‘Big Data’ actually is. There seems to be an obsession with the mechanics of how data is collected, without considering the way in which it may potentially be used.

Data by itself is just that – data. Of itself, it has no meaning, nor any inherent value. When that concept is first considered, the response is universal – the statement is simply wrong, counter-intuitive and borderline heresy! However, before leaping upon such a bandwagon with your pitchfork, consider again the context of the statement. The truth is, data and insights alone don’t make businesses better. They can no more improve productivity than they can fix a leaking roof. It sounds so obvious, but before you begin to mine the data you have, there must be a clear understanding of what you’re looking to achieve. Yet many businesses put the cart before the horse and base their strategy on what they find, rather than using their strategy to set the parameters of collection, explore the data and make it purposeful.

Data by itself is just that – data

When shipping and logistics company UPS installed advanced telematics (a method of vehicle monitoring, that combines on-board and location data) on their fleet of delivery vans, it was to track metrics such as distance travelled, engine idle time and fuel usage. The intention was to use this data to investigate a route to reducing carbon emissions and increasing efficiency in the company’s delivery fleet. The outcome led to better route planning and a decrease in the amount of time vans were idling – and a reduction of 100,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year. It has also had the knock-on effect of less wear and tear on their fleet, as vehicle mileage naturally decreased by an astonishing 100 million.
If a constructive, strategy-first approach to big data can create such positive business change, then why have so few companies established a data-driven culture? The reason is because it’s not been possible to build it into the philosophy of a long-established company. Start-ups, by contrast, treat data as the air that they breathe, using it as the place from which all actions are taken. In this respect, however, you might think that start-up data is of little value when compared to the might of the vast datasets available to global enterprises, but insights in isolation are no insights at all. There are plenty of platforms available which can ‘plug in’ to existing data collection tools, expanding their context exponentially. ClearStory Data is one such solution that lets businesses compare their existing data with publicly available information. In this way, smaller businesses can inform their actions with supplementary input from the wider business landscape.
Google Trends is another fine resource, giving you the ability to analyse internet search activity, while Microsoft Azure has open data on everything from agriculture to taxi trip records. The depth and breadth of the potential actions driven by such repositories could be game-changing – influencing predictions on and responses to market or customer behaviour far ahead of time. For example, a growing restaurant chain might use seasonal data trends to predict what customers will want to eat more of and when, then increase the visibility of these dishes accordingly. This affects every level of the business, from procurement to promotion, driving sales and efficiency. In this way, even the smallest business can conduct itself like a major player and benefit from a data-driven culture at the outset. And at the enterprise level, it’s perhaps these up-and-coming businesses with data at the heart that can spur the action necessary to follow their lead. Either way, it’s a big win for Big Data.

Written by Steve Narancic

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