Data management vital as business applications emerge

19/11/2013 - 14:44

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Everyone's talking about it, but pinpointing exactly what defines ‘big data’ is considered almost as challenging as putting it to use.

NEXT STEP: Clinton House says even retailers working with big data are ready for the next frontier. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Everyone's talking about it, but pinpointing exactly what defines ‘big data’ is considered almost as challenging as putting it to use.

However it is interpreted, the use of data is changing the way business is done and some, such as Woolworths, are reaping rewards from tapping in early.

In May, Woolworths forked out more than $20 million for a 50 per cent stake in data analytics firm Quantium – a partnership forged to give the retail giant in-depth insights into consumer behaviour.

Five months later, Woolworths attributed a 4.5 per cent increase in sales growth and increased market share, customer numbers, basket size and items sold over the three months to October 6, to big data.

“Our increased capability in using our data to deliver insights and tailor the shopping experience for customers … continues to enhance growth,” chief executive Grant O’Brien said.

More recently, KPMG this week recognised the potential benefits of tapping into vast reams of data and using it to the advantage of business.

It has launched an investment fund – KPMG Capital – dedicated to accelerating “innovation in data and analytics that will help clients of member firms unlock tangible value of their big data”.

Chief executive of the new fund, Mark Toon, said the business imperative had shifted from technology used to collect the data to analysing the data.

“Research shows that business leaders recognise the tremendous importance of data and analytics to business growth, but they feel they need more support to develop effective solutions,” Mr Toon told Business News.

In apparent support for Mr Toon’s hypothesis, 71 per cent of respondents to a 2011 survey by IBM said they were less than adequately prepared to respond to the significant amount of data now available.

Two years later, even more appeared overwhelmed, with 82 per cent of respondents saying they were unprepared.

It’s that trend that has prompted Western Australia-based information technology firm ASG Group to change its business model and focus more on service provision rather than technology.

Managing director Geoff Lewis told Business News the days of focusing on technology and infrastructure to gain competitive edge were long gone.

“If you go back 30 years there was a big difference in productivity by adopting technology, but now that’s gone,” he said.

“What organisations are working out is that the use of information that resides in their systems is their biggest asset.

“They can work out how to be more efficient, more productive and how to make more profit by analysing that data.”

But Mr Lewis said it was the sheer volume of data available that was overwhelming some customers.

“Because the data they have in their systems is large, they need to be strategic in how they do that.”

Considered the apex of big data, the Pawsey supercomputing centre in Bentley officially opened for operational use this week – with iVEC in the driver’s seat.

While it will be used to crunch data from the Square Kilometre Array project in the future, iVEC executive director Neil Stringfellow said that was only one example of what the facility could be used for.

It is also available to private businesses and state government agencies wanting to take advantage of the supercomputing power to analyse and compare data compiled over years.

“Even if the data isn’t that big it may be complex and difficult to analyse, and that’s where we would want to help,” Mr Stringfellow said.

“[But] the first thing is management; there’s no point in even trying to look at your data unless you understand what your data is.”

It’s nothing new for retail businesses like Woolworths to collect information about their customers using tools such as credit and debit card transactions, or loyalty programs.

According to the founder of Perth-based digital agency inhouse group, Clinton House, that’s part of what has led to the term ‘big data’.

“What it really seems to be is a shift in the mentality that big data provides a value proposition … a recognition that it’s actually worth something,” Mr House said.

About two years ago, inhouse group launched a new tool to monitor consumer behaviour. Its ‘insights by inhouse’ technology tracks customer movements via data emitted from their smartphone.

Retail customers have embraced the technology and recognised its potential, which Mr House said was due to the fear and uncertainty in the retail environment.

However even the major operators are just dipping their toes in the water at this stage.

“A lot of these big companies already have a lot of data and they’re not really utilising it as well as they could be,” Mr House said.

“The data that we were finding two years ago is still some of the data that motivates them for change right now.

“We’ve got all this other stuff up our sleeve that we want to show them [but] they’re not ready for it yet.”

Another Perth company plying its trade in the big data space is a start-up business called Synaptor.

It has developed tools that enable businesses to log health and safety incidents and observations via mobile devices, rather than traditional paper-based systems.

It’s now taken the idea one step further by launching a predictive tool which analyses the data logged to predict where and when accidents could occur.

Engineering company Hatch has signed up to be one of the first to trial the system.

Synaptor managing director Justin Strharsky said the technology provided real-time data, which was unique.

“There are some very large companies that have looked to do analysis on their data and their approach has been to hire an accounting company to analyse their data … the way that usually works is that it’s a snapshot in time,” Mr Strharsky said.

“Having a snapshot in time may help you in the boardroom making strategic decisions, but it won’t help you manage risk in the moment.”

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