SAN FRANCISCO—The promise of big data is that IT and C-suite executives will gain profit-driving business insights from the latest analytics tools that sift through gigabytes and terabytes of corporate data.
From customers’ buying habits to medical research, companies and institutions have far more data on what people are buying, searching for and chatting about online than at any time in history.
The challenge, as detailed by panelists here Jan. 28 at a Dell-sponsored event, is finding the right set of data that will deliver useful insights.
“Big data is an umbrella term for technology that gets you access to huge sets of data quickly for purposes you couldn’t imagine doing before because it wasn’t affordable. That’s changed,” IDC analyst Carl Olofson told eWEEK. “But if you don’t know what you’re doing, big data has limited value, and I’ve seen it play out that way in some cases.”
That said, Olofson believes big data solutions have proved useful to, for example, retailers. He gives an example of a company that sees a lot of interest in shoes it’s selling online, as the pageviews are off the charts, but buyers aren’t clicking through to purchase in any great numbers.
“A big data analysis might show there was a lot of interest in a certain color, but it was frequently out of stock,” he said. “That’s helpful to know. The other great thing is that big data is changing all the time and you have the ability to respond to those changes.”
Thanks to cloud computing solutions, Olofson said, you can try big data solutions with slices of data from your organization and see if they provide the kinds of insights you need without investing a lot of money.
Still, many small-to-medium-size businesses (SMBs) haven’t invested in big data to date, either because it’s too expensive or too much of an investment in their time to investigate and tailor their own business processes to make it worthwhile, according to Matt Baker, executive director of Enterprise Strategy for Dell’s Enterprise Solutions group.
He compares the advantage of big data to the value of a video versus a picture. “But in terms of getting into big data, a lot of these SMBs don’t even have a picture yet [when it comes to their data]. They’re struggling with basic reporting.”
Big Data or Big Disappointment? Experts Debate Hype Versus Reality
There was a spirited discussion among panelists on the topic of big data and health care and whether someday, perhaps as soon as five years from now, computers will analyze our health records and be able to recommend treatment options without the need for a human doctor.
The idea was rejected for many reasons, including the argument that a computer can’t match a human doctor’s insights including, for example, the ability to evaluate how a patient responds to a question (facial expression, tone of voice, etc.) and what kind of follow-up questions are appropriate.
“One of the things with big data is that it’s all about correlations, not causality,” said Jai Menon, vice president and chief research officer for Dell Research. “If the data says orange juice and vitamins take care of this type of cancer, it still doesn’t know why.”
But Dell customer Ken Yale, vice president of Clinical Solutions at Active Health Management, sees opportunities for big data to play a bigger role. While we rely on a doctor’s expertise to keep us healthy, Yale said studies have shown that “50 percent of the time a doctor’s diagnosis is wrong.” He also predicts that “in five years, 80-90 percent of diagnoses will be made by computers or devices.”
Another hot button issue with big data is privacy. Panelists noted that we’re now collecting years if not decades of data on people that may be used in ways that could not have been predicted when it was originally gathered. While big data systems may collect this data in aggregate to spot trends without identifying specific individuals, the analysis might get so specific as to clearly identify one or a handful of individuals with, say, a unique set of symptoms.
In any case, it’s clear that the younger generation is more prone to share detailed information about themselves, particularly on social media. How that plays out in the future remains to be seen.
“The alternative view in research we did about the younger generation and over-sharing is that there’s a risk you don’t know enough about me and aren’t utilizing the information I’m willing to share,” said Nik Rouda, senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. “I’d love to be marketed the right product and not the car I just bought. And if my insurance company has reason to believe my health is at risk, tell me.”