Big Data called "the planet's new natural resource"

Jeanette Horan, chief information officer at IBM.
Jeanette Horan, chief information officer at IBM. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: October 18, 2013

How big is Big Data? Big enough that it may someday justify all the hype it has generated over the last few years - and big enough to have stirred a flurry of economic activity visible almost anywhere, from the lowliest start-ups to the nation's largest companies.

That was the message delivered Wednesday by Jeanette Horan, IBM's chief information officer, and her smaller-company counterparts who followed her to the stage at the Software and Information Industry Association's "Data Is Destiny" conference this week at Philadelphia's Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Horan called Big Data - shorthand for the potential analytical power that comes from our vast stores of every kind of digital data - "the planet's new natural resource." It's an ironic metaphor when you consider that the basic Big Data challenge is managing a commodity that is growing, not dwindling, in supply.

Not just growing, but expanding by magnitudes most of us probably find barely comprehensible. Thanks to Big Data, officials at the Library of Congress have become accustomed, with some amusement, to "Libraries of Congress" being adopted as an informal unit of measure.

Two years ago, McKinsey & Co. cited an estimate that worldwide, 13 exabytes (quintillion bytes) of new data had been stored in 2010 by businesses and consumers. Horan puts today's worldwide pace of growth at about 2.5 exabytes per day.

And how much is an exabyte? By various estimates, a single exabyte is equivalent to 500 to 4,000 of those vast Libraries of Congress.

A key limitation is that most of the data, perhaps 80 percent, "is unstructured," Horan says. Much exists because data points are increasingly captured in nontraditional ways, such as via the electronic sensors on devices that are part of the explosively growing "Internet of things."

Unstructured data are hardly useless. Horan suggested that some data points, captured, and acted on in real time, could turn out to be lifesavers.

She described a "not-too-distant-future" scenario in which a person is exercising at a gym while equipped with a wearable device, such as a Fitbit, capable of monitoring bodily functions and communicating via a cellular network.

In Horan's scenario, the souped-up Fitbit "says, 'Wait a moment. There's a trend coming on here. This guy's about to have a heart attack.' And the Fitbit actually calls the ambulance before you've had a heart attack.' "

Other sorts of Big Data applications rely on the ability not just to collect more information, but also to organize it and make it accessible to other companies for analytical purposes - a forte of smaller companies, such as Enigma and Segmint, whose executives followed Horan to the stage.

IBM, which had worldwide sales of more than $104 billion last year, has itself been busy in the field, using Big Data sources often called "market intelligence" to analyze factors as far-ranging as customers' purchase histories and social sentiments, and people's authority levels in their companies.

Those profiles can then be married with internal data from a target customer's "clickstream" - actions while on the company's own websites, Horan says. "Have they downloaded white papers on new services, for example?"

IBM's results from advanced analytics have lived up to the hype. "What we're starting to see is that the return on the time of the inside salespeople is going up dramatically as we're able to give them much better insight," Horan says. "They're doing far less cold-calling."

She says IBM's analytic pilots have shown clear success among employees who embrace the new tools: "In average, their business results were 10 percent better than those that didn't."

She says IBM has been careful to acknowledge the limits of its analytics, describing them as adjuncts to other tools, including old-fashioned intuition.

But she adds, "The hardest thing to overcome is the 30-year veteran who says, 'You can't tell me anything that my gut doesn't already tell me.' "

If the message of Big Data is anything, it's that it can do exactly that.

215-854-2776 @jeffgelles

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