How to Innovate in the Age of Big Data

Wednesday April 2nd, 2014

This week Teradata CTO  Stephen Brobst,  spoke at Teradata Summit 2014 in Canberra to an audience with shared interests in two key areas, data and government.

Brobst took us on a journey talking about how companies and organisations around the world are innovating today, in the era of big data.   Brobst shared that during US President Barrack Obama’s first term he was a member of the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), a working group of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).    Brobst noted that the number one finding was that all federal agencies need a big data strategy in order to use data to improve quality of life for citizens.   How best to do this?   First is to focus less on the organisation and more on the citizen or what Brobst called Consumer Intelligence, providing information direct to the consumer to help them make better decisions whether it is regarding healthcare, banking, insurance or even government services.

The second topic Brobst addressed was the Open Data Revolution.  Brobst shared that the US government policy went from encouraging publication of data to mandating data sharing (with exceptions to protect privacy and security).    What has been learned is that the more open the data is the more value that can be created from the data.  One of the earliest examples of open data in the US is GPS information.  There are now more than 3 million jobs that are directly dependent on the availability of open GPS data and the estimated value is $90 billion a year.

A related topic to open data is the concept of crowd sourcing – using others outside of your organisation to identify insights.  A Canadian company published data and invited PHD students to help identify the best locations to drill for oil.   Todd Park the previous CTO of the US Department of Health and Human Services created a “Datapalooza“ festival where de-identified health care data (including procedures, hospitals, costs, outcomes) was provided to participants in order to create software products with the data.  There were 1600 participants and the Department then provided R&D money to subsidise good ideas generated.  One such idea was the iTriage app to help people locate the most effective hospital services for their particular situation.  This app has been downloaded over 9 million times.

Another example of crowd sourcing is in using GPS-enabled phones to improve data capture.  In the Punjab area (border between India and Pakistan), Dengue fever is quite prevalent and leads to many deaths every year.  Dengue fever is spread by mosquitos and the key problem was identifying breeding locations in and near cities.  A smart phone application was built that health care professionals could use to enter the details on new cases and government employees could use to report potential breeding locations so that preventative measures could be taken.   Pictures of the locations were taken, geo-coded and uploaded for further analysis.  

The picture below shows Brobst pointing out a visualisation of the resulting analysis, the red dots are outbreaks and the blue circles show identified breeding areas.  The result was that incidents of Dengue fever went down significantly and that last year there were only 20 deaths reported.

Brobst’s last topic was to discuss innovation and governance and I like many thought that never the two shall meet!    As Brobst pointed out, it is the perception that needs to change.    Brobst referenced a study conducted by Capgemini and MIT Sloan School of Management and proceeded to walk through examples within each of four quadrants shown in the picture below.   Brobst did say that in the report the lower left hand quadrant was called Beginners and not Losers.   He chose that descriptor to make a point, stay in that quadrant too long and your company won’t be around into the future

The Cash Cows are those existing on older products, fixed telephone lines, for example.   There is a very limited future for this market, so organisations must innovate to evolve.   The Fashonistas have high innovation and no governance and often chase the “shiny new object”.   IT can easily fall into this category; think “cloud”, “big data”, “Hadoop”.   It is in focusing on the technology, not on the business value delivered by the technology.   The quadrant to be in is the Digeratti, characterised by high innovation and governance, organisation that are sophisticated in their use of digital assets.

Brobst went on to provide an example of the differences between Fashonistas and Digeratti – social media analytics.   A company was looking for ways to improve customer service within their call centre and were investigating the potential to review feedback received via social media.  Using a collaborative process between business and IT a decision was made not to chase the “shiny new object” (social media) rather to analyse the content of call centre logs, where agents captured a record of their interaction with the customer via a text field. 

Turns out the tools and techniques would have been the same; however the result would have been different.  By focusing on the “boring” call centre data that was never before used for analytics, the company was able to identify opportunities for increasing the quality of service.

So what was Brobst’s advice in terms of strategies for those working in government agencies to identify the motivation to invest in innovation?  

Look for someone who cares about improving the quality of service and provide them a way to benchmark.  This can be done by exploring best practices across other agencies in Australia or other countries.   In some cases, commercial organisations can serve as a benchmark.   If you are in an analytics type of role for your organisation or you lead others in the space, challenge what you think of as the best way; use data and experimentation to test and measure effectiveness.  Make no investment unless you know how you will measure it.  If you are not measuring success then you will not succeed – unless you are very lucky.

Monica Woolmer has over 25 years of IT experience and has been leading data management and data analysis implementations for over 15 years. As an Industry Consultant Monica’s role is to utilise her diverse experience across multiple industries to understand client’s business, articulate industry vision and trends and to identify opportunities to leverage analytics platforms to support, enable and facilitate the client’s strategic business improvement and change agendas. Monica’s focus is assisting Public Sector clients across Australia and New Zealand. Connect with Monica via LinkedIn.

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About Monica Woolmer

Monica Woolmer has over 25 years of IT experience who has been leading data management and data analysis implementations for over 15 years. As an Industry Consultant Monica’s role is to help organisations become data driven. That is, to utilise her diverse experience across multiple industries to understand client's business; articulate industry vision and trends; and to identify opportunities to leverage analytics.

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