DATA ANALYTICS | Should you catch the big data wave?

Why free data isn’t always good data

By Bill Peterson

I see a flood coming…and it’s big. Big data, that is. Industry sources report nearly 90 percent of all data in the world was created during the past few years alone. It’s estimated by IBM that more than 2.5 billion gigabytes (GB) was generated in 2012 –every day!
Over the past year there have been several stories about government agencies in Canada collecting publically available, free data. Earlier this year it was reported by the federal privacy watchdog that our federal government has been collecting Canadians social media data, for example. While there are obviously concerns around privacy that need to be addressed, another pressing concern is whether these agencies are using the data to make important policy decisions.

FileFoldersWhy is this a problem? Free data, even lots of it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the right data, and that the conclusions drawn from it, whether it is with respect to unemployment numbers or flu trends, can often be way off the mark. From a marketing perspective, looking to free data to help guide strategic decisions could be a very costly mistake.

To understand big data, it’s important to look at the size of the digital universe. In its recent report, analyst firm IDC notes all the data that consumers and businesses create and copy annually will hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020. In fact, this number is doubling in size every two years. This universe consists largely of unstructured data built by the power of the Internet – including email, Google searches, tweeting and social media.
According to a recent article in Forbes, data has become one of the most critical company resources: “Once you start tackling big data, you’ll learn what you don’t know, and you’ll be inspired to take steps to resolve any problems. Best of all, you can use the insights you gather at each step along the way to start improving customer engagement strategies.”

Recently, the New York Times investigated some of the drawbacks associated with big data. The piece notes that – while beneficial – big data is not the panacea to all that ails society: “although big data is very good at detecting correlations, especially subtle correlations that an analysis of smaller data sets might miss, it never tells us which correlations are meaningful. A big data analysis might reveal, for instance, that from 2006 to 2011 the United States murder rate was well correlated with the market share of Internet Explorer: Both went down sharply.”

Still, big data is rapidly being adopted by the marketing sector as a means to find new micromarkets and discover new customer insights. Given the abundance of data from which to choose, tapping into this insight seems like a natural fit.
Some companies are certainly benefitting from big data. According to a recent McKinsey report, “those that use big data and analytics effectively show productivity rates and profitability that are 5 – 6 percent higher than those of their peers.” Their analysis of more than 250 engagements over five years “revealed that companies that put data at the centre of the marketing and sales decisions improve their marketing return on investment (MROI) by 15 – 20 percent. That adds up to $150 – $200 billion of additional value based on global annual marketing spend of an estimated $1 trillion.”

While big data brings big opportunity, it also brings a lot of risk. The McKinsey report also found that “many marketing executives find themselves faced with overwhelming amounts of data and organizational complexity, rapidly changing customer behaviors, and increased competitive pressures.” This coupled with the potential inaccuracy of that data exposes marketing to many potential pitfalls.
UK research firm Dynamic Markets recently conducted a study that revealed bad data is also costing companies. In fact, three quarters of UK organisations are currently losing potential revenue due to poor contact data, and 94 per cent believe they have poor data quality in their organisations.

So, is all big data “Bad Data”? Not necessarily. To ensure quality, accurate data, what’s necessary is a dedicated plan and methodology – backed by targeted solutions and managed services. But why managed services? The information universe is exploding. Due to IT budget cuts and other constraints, most in-house IT departments don’t have the resources to do the job right. Lack of infrastructure space – and the inability to purchase more equipment – often leads to inefficient storage and management of critical information. What I have seen, from a personnel side, is that many IT directors lack the bandwidth to manage and ensure data integrity. This leads to information overload and poor decision-making. That’s where managed services come in.
A good managed service provider will offer the technology foundation capable of optimizing storage, streamlining integration and driving quick retrieval and analysis of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data. This leads to cleaner, better managed data. A dedicated managed service provider can also provide elastic bandwidth to expand connectivity and handle increased usage – while enabling the environment to scale down as necessary.
Almost as crucial is a provider that ensures critical information is always available and reliable. The goal is a “Tier 1,” IP global network with multiple layers of redundancy to guarantee extremely small windows of downtime. In layman’s terms: an Internet backup plan. This must be accompanied by a powerful security ecosystem that not only protects sensitive data, but also ensures strict compliance with industry and government mandates. Lacking a powerful global network and full connectivity at the core, a big data project is doomed from the start.

The ultimate goal is to find a partner, like CenturyLink Technology Solutions, that is able to offer these critical elements, while customizing services to match each unique business or marketing environment. A strong partner will also deliver tailored managed services – ranging from business case development and big data environment planning to training and implementation services.
Big data is changing the way marketing conducts business. Encouraged by vast amounts of information spread across the digital universe, many departments are undertaking significant investments to better harness the power of both structured and unstructured data.

But to meet these ambitious goals, adopters must stand clear of the data free for all – ensuring they leverage only the most relevant data sets to drive quality decisions. Be sure to align with a partner capable of developing a big data offering that reliably and safely stores, manages and analyzes every piece of critical information. Otherwise, you run the risk of literally drowning in a flood of data.
William “Bill” Peterson runs marketing and strategy for CenturyLink Technology Solutions’ Big Data efforts. Prior to CenturyLink, Bill ran Product and Solutions Marketing for NetApp’s Big Analytics and Hadoop Solutions. In addition to his marketing role at NetApp, Bill was the Marketing Co-Chair for the Analytics and Big Data Committee, SNIA.

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