Saturday 17 March 2018

Big Data brings in a whole new way of thinking

Taking advantage of emerging analytic tools will give Ireland a chance to play its part in the new innovation revolution taking place across the globe, writes Jason Ward of EMC

THE economic uncertainty caused by the European sovereign debt crisis and shortage of working capital has forced companies to reassess their business models. Pressure is growing to boost profitability, explore new markets and create innovative products for existing and prospective customers.

But the significant funding gap for investing in new and exciting opportunities means that many firms have been unable to exploit their growth potential. Globally, and particularly in Ireland, the challenge is to grow organically in a business environment in which access to capital is constrained.

Big Data is becoming an increasingly important asset to commercialise. In recent years, the advent of Big Data analytics has made it easier to capitalise on the wealth of historic and real-time information generated through sensory devices, supply chains, production processes and customer behaviour.

The value of Big Data that can be unlocked from analytics is increasing rapidly as technological innovations take hold. Take Target, for example.

Earlier this year, the US retail giant hit the headlines for figuring out which customers were about to have a baby based on an analysis of their purchases, and then pushing ads, coupons and special offers at them for items they might want to buy.

Like many retailers, Target has been collecting vast amounts of data on everyone who regularly walks into its stores. It assigns each shopper a unique code (known as the Guest ID number) that keeps tabs on everything they buy. But the marketers in Target are interested too in finding out where its customers live, how much they earn, the kind of magazines and music they like, the brand of coffee they prefer, where they went to college, and so on. The more retailers know about their customers, the more precisely they can sell.

This intersection between data and human behaviour is quickly becoming a boardroom preoccupation. How organisations use data to generate insights -- Big Data analytics -- is an opportunity for Ireland to prosper in a new IT revolution.

Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us is generating vast amounts of information, or "digital shadows". Smartphones, social networks and other consumer devices, including PCs and laptops, have allowed billions of people around the world to process huge amounts of information.

This information is creating opportunities for organisations to generate individual-specific profiles, uncovering patterns to produce business and public policy insights.

For example, I track my runs and cycles on an online app called LogYourRun. Recently, I received some special product offers on running equipment based on distances I had covered, locations, terrain, speed and so on.

Facebook and LinkedIn use patterns of friendship relationships to suggest other people we may know, or should know, with sometimes frightening accuracy. Amazon saves our searches, correlates them with others' searches and product reviews, and uses the results to generate surprisingly appropriate recommendations. How this feedback loop is mined is the beginning of data science.

In healthcare, legacy IT systems are only able to analyse a small percentage of the data they hold -- but by using Big Data analytics tools, they can examine more diverse internal and external information, including likely outcomes of prescribed drug interactions, patients' personal medical histories, and social and economic factors, to improve treatments and outcomes.

This is the new world of data science. According to IT giant Cisco, smartphones outsold personal computers and desktops for the first time in Ireland last year and by 2016 there will be 10 billion mobile internet devices for 7.3 billion humans on Earth.

Organisations globally will need to deal with 44 times more information each year over the next decade than they are managing today, according to the International Data Corporation.

If businesses and public-sector organisations in Ireland deploy Big Data analytics technology now, they will better understand the marketplace while developing new business opportunities and more tailored public policy responses.

US and Asian economies are still trying to establish first-mover advantage in Big Data analytics, so Ireland has an opportunity to get ahead now.

The basic conditions are right. Eight out of 10 of the largest IT companies in the world have bases on Irish soil, including EMC, which employs 2,700 people here out of its global workforce of more than 50,000.

Our 'natural' advantages of English language, geographical location and talent pool are key. The uptake of undergraduate computer courses has risen by 40 per cent over the past four years.

Government investment in innovation is making it easier for companies like EMC, with the help of IDA Ireland, to invest here. Enterprise Ireland is supporting a new generation of indigenous, high-potential start-up companies, many of them in the IT sector, to put Ireland on the map in 21st century industry.

Ireland has an opportunity to be part of a new IT revolution, which is characterised by a collaborative enterprise ecosystem of multinational corporations, colleges, government, and small, agile companies that have an eye for doing things smarter. For EMC, this is what Richard Bruton, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, meant when he said last year that Ireland needed an "innovation revolution".

In the US, the Obama administration recently announced a $200m (€158m) initial research investment plan to explore how opportunities in Big Data can be unlocked. In advance of the presidential election in November, the Obama campaign has hired a habit specialist as its chief scientist to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies.

Just as Dwight Eisenhower used radio in the Fifties and John F Kennedy deployed the power of television in the Sixties, Barack Obama is leveraging Big Data to reach voters in 2012.

Ireland can produce the next EMC, Google or Facebook -- and becoming a Big Data innovation hub could be the catalyst. To do this, we will need data scientists with specific skillsets that include data mining and analysis, advanced maths and statistics, behavioural patterns recognition, and business or sector-based knowledge.

The Government is already adopting the right enterprise policy mix. To build on that, EMC believes that among the new ideas policy-makers should explore are:

• Tailored Big Data college programmes that draw together multi-disciplinary strands across mathematics, computing, science and sociology.

• A new Leaving Certificate subject of Applied Science.

• Strong Government-led efforts, in partnership with industry, to generate better public awareness of IT-related careers.

• Tailored research and development grants for start-up companies in Big Data analytics.

For our part, EMC, which provides cloud and Big Data solutions, is committed to Ireland and to working with Government to accelerate economic recovery. Over the past 25 years, our campus in Cork evolved from a basic manufacturing facility, employing a handful of people, into a world-class Centre of Excellence employing over 2,000 highly-skilled engineers, programmers and developers.

It is EMC's largest manufacturing site outside the US, with 28 business functions and 44 nationalities on-site speaking 26 languages.

EMC has created the world-first, industry-led masters degree programme in cloud computing, in partnership with Cork Institute of Technology. Now, we are partnering with University College Cork to develop a similar programme in data science.

We are working with colleges and industry on potential Big Data solutions, which, in turn, can be tested on Cloud4Gov, our recently launched cloud and Big Data platform.

The ability to exploit data -- understand, process, extract value, visualise and communicate it -- will be a hugely important skill in the coming decades.

For Ireland's economy, the opportunities for jobs, growth and recovery are immense.

Jason Ward is country manager of EMC Ireland

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