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'Big data is coming and it's changing our lives'

AMERICAN companies employ about 115,000 people in Ireland. It's a line that seems to get thrown out every time a US firm is in the news, and it can even begin to grate after a while. Nevertheless, for technology companies in particular, there can be little doubt that Ireland has become a hub of science and innovation.

EMC is one of those companies. The majority of its 3,000 staff in Ireland are based well away from the capital, in Cork.

As country manager for Ireland, Bob Savage is in charge of running the vast operations of the technology company, which provides solutions across a wide variety of businesses sectors.

A 25-year veteran of the company, the Cork native has headed EMC's operations in Ireland for the past five years. EMC has been around for years but now it is focused on one of the fastest growing areas of computing – big data.

Big data is one of those buzz terms being knocked around technology conferences at the moment but it is already hugely relevant to daily life, says Mr Savage. "If you look at what research firms say, the amount of data in the world doubled in the past year alone. What we've been used to for years is the structured data – financial institutions, bank accounts and so on. The real growth now though is in the unstructured stuff – sensors, videos, social media.

"In the past, data was created by big institutions. Now it is users who are creating, and with mobile data that is even more pronounced," he claims.

The amount of data is still growing rapidly as well, but all that information is of little use if it can't be sorted and managed into a coherent structure.

Just as most people would not have the patience to wait a few days for a Google search to return the results they want, there is no point in storing these reams of data if they can't be utilised.

This is where the likes of EMC and other firms come in.

"We can manage the data and store it securely, but the big thing is being able to index it and utilise it," says Mr Savage.

The potential in this space is huge. One well published example came with the video streaming service Netflix, which created its first original series 'House of Cards' this year.

Netflix used big data to meticulously research its users' tastes. By the time the show had completed production, Netflix was almost certain it would have a hit on its hands, and so it proved.

Closer to home, the potential is obvious in the field of consumption economics. In simple terms, this allows companies to have hyper-accurate profiles of their customers and so cater for their tastes.

It would allow a supermarket to cater its shelves to customer tastes based on what comes through the till and under what circumstances.

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Is bread bought throughout the day or is it only bought in the morning? If so, there might be no point in organising a second delivery in the afternoon and so on.

Do sales go up when it's raining? What about when the temperature is lower than 10c? How about weekends? All these data points are now readily available.

"This is coming and it is changing our lives. As a country we can take advantage of this," says Mr Savage. "We have a technology eco-system in place in the country but we have to keep working at it. Globally, big data is expected to create around 4.4 million jobs by the end of 2015.

"We can take advantage of that but we have to be proactive to earn some of those posts. Think about it. In the 50s and 60s, there was the mainframe computing era – we could never have been part of that – the logistics were impossible.

"With the internet we have done very well, but the technology industry is moving to being a utility like electricity and we can really build on that," he says.

To that end, EMC has partnered with the Irish Management Institute (IMI) to run a masters and a diploma in data management. The course, which is targeted at working professionals, is aimed at giving people the skills to work with big data sets, and go back in to their jobs.

As a former chairman of the board at Cork Institute of Technology, Mr Savage is acutely aware of the need to educate the workforce in this area.

"We have to lose the plucky Irish mindset, we have to aspire to be first, not second. We've all heard of the skills shortage and it is real. We need science graduates but we also need leaders, and the IMI courses play an important role in that.

"Success in this area won't be handed to us on a plate so we need to fight for it," he added.

Mr Savage has been in charge at EMC Ireland for just over five years, and he sits on the board of Enterprise Ireland (he cannot speak highly enough of EI boss Frank Ryan), but he is one of the lower profile leaders in Irish business.

Part of that is undoubtedly because of where EMC is based. Set up near Ballincollig in Co Cork, it is well away from the capital, with its easy international access. Does the location cause problems when trying to attract staff to EMC?

"Not a huge amount, we work hard on creating a good environment, some staff settle, some don't. Cork is like a small town in Central Europe and that is a huge attraction for a lot of people.

"We have challenges, the big problem is air access. If we have customers coming from anywhere bar London, Amsterdam and Paris it is two flights, so we have to provide such a valuable experience that it is still worth going."

Transport links

"Cork airport has no flight to Dublin, the train is still a bit slow and then Shannon has its own issues so that is a huge challenge for us. Then again, if we can create the critical mass here, then it will become an economic decision to run flights from Cork.

"The State has a part to play but certainly Cork Airport, it is a fantastic airport but we don't have the access. We have US customs clearance here and we have to leverage that."

Mr Savage has spent half his life with EMC, but at 50 he is still a young man. What does he see in his future?

"There's a lot to be done here. We've gone from being a manufacturing centre to being a really strong research centre for EMC in Europe and there is a lot of work to be done here – I'm fully focused on that."

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