The Year Ahead For...Data

Russell Marsh argues that 'big data' is not the new phenomenon that many had assumed. The companies that succeed, he suggests, will be those that automate their data to create unique experiences.

Russell Marsh: ‘The ability to rapidly codify the information in a way that allows you to look at it, understand it and then be able to act upon it is critical’
Russell Marsh: ‘The ability to rapidly codify the information in a way that allows you to look at it, understand it and then be able to act upon it is critical’

There is nothing clever about big data.

In fact, I am growing rather tired of hearing about it and the gargantuan numbers that are rolled out every day.

"Big data" is big – the clue is in the title. It always has been big, it’s just the speed at which we have seen it contextually change and become more relevant that has surprised many people. As far back as 1944, Fremont Rider estimated that, based on the growth rate of the Yale University Library, by 2040 it would occupy more than 6,000 miles of shelving. That was big then and today.

We have always had more data than we have known what to do with. The growth more recently has run parallel with that of digital processing power. Moore’s Law, and a little less-well-known law sometimes called Kryder’s Law, both pretty much say that, every two years, things get faster and storage gets cheaper.

So why are we so surprised that people are storing and doing more with their technology and data? History has already shown us there is a pattern here and it’s only going to get bigger and faster.

Digital in its widest form has come down in cost dramatically in the past ten years. Once you move beyond the high cost of a physical device and into pure coding and data, then the cost of entry into these markets is almost zero. This has resulted in the huge explosion of various tools, games and apps all generating even more data, further magnified by our insatiable desire to connect to an ever-increasing number of people.

But what does it all mean to my business and what do I do with it? This is probably the single most important question being asked in company boardrooms today.

For larger companies with the time and the budgets, attribution modelling could give them insights into past consumer behaviour and help provide insights into where to spend generic media budgets. But speed is now the key in the dynamic markets we all operate in.

Big data sets still provide us with all of that historic information, it’s just now we have a "bigger mirror" in which to look at the chaos behind as we drive the business forward.

And that’s part of the problem. What most companies now have is just more historic complex data. Looking backwards in a rapidly changing market is not going to stop you driving your business off a "cliff", as Kodak and, more recently, Comet in the UK have found out.

In today’s market, the ability to rapidly codify the information in a way that allows you to look at it, understand it and then be able to act upon it is critical.

This is something companies that have grown up in the new connected digital economy can do incredibly well. Companies such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon and Apple all understand the importance of connected data and the power that this brings to their organisations. They know the real-time, always-on nature of consumers brings with it a flood of information and expectations that can only be dealt with via automated systems. By connecting the pieces together, it provides speed and insights that could never have been imagined in the past, giving them the ability to react and engage at an individual level.

We see this in companies such as Amazon, which dynamically optimises against purchase behaviour to drive sales. At the other end of the spectrum, we see Google changing terms and conditions to allow it to connect all of its platforms. This lets the company collect behavioural data from the content we search for, watch on YouTube, send via Gmail, browse via Chrome and all the way through to how and where (through GPS) we interact on our Android smartphones.

So is this scary or beneficial? I think that is the big question yet to be answered. But, right now, as a consumer, I can only see the benefits. On my new S3 Android phone, I no longer have to actually search for information. Without setting anything up (other than logging into my Google account), my phone knows me. It tells me what the weather will be for the day, when the bus and Tube will arrive at my stop and, if there are delays, it gives me alternative routes. This, along with a whole host of other little useful things, I value. It works and it’s great.

These companies have realised it’s not the consumer who should be at the heart of any business, it’s their data. And by automating the pieces, they can provide a genuinely personalised experience that makes me love them.

Successful companies in the coming year will be the ones that learn to automate their big data sets to produce creative experiences that target people as unique individuals rather than as part of a generic group.

It’s about understanding the one rather than the zettabyte.

Russell Marsh is the group strategy director at Rapp