Fast broadband rumbles on big data's horizons

Fast broadband rumbles on big data's horizons

Ultrafast broadband necessary to spur innovation, according to survey

A majority of IT professionals recently surveyed by CIO magazine and sister publication Reseller News say that ultrafast broadband is necessary to spur innovation, and will improve productivity.

Organisations, at the same time, will look to ISPs, IT consultants and resellers to spell out what the specific benefits of broadband will be.

The survey was a companion to events on big data and broadband in Wellington and Auckland, run by the publications and sponsored by storage solutions provider EMC. The survey showed that 87 percent of the mostly CIO respondents believe ISPs are responsible for educating the business community, while 79 percent say it is their IT consultants' job.

Panellists participating in the Wellington event on March 6, however, speculated that while broadband promises New Zealand companies improved business efficiency through the aggregating and analysing of larger data sets, shortcomings in dealing with current big data issues must also be improved and may impede uptake. This is independent of whether we are talking about terabytes or petabytes, the panellists said.

Big data is "more of a concept" than an absolute size measure, says panellist Ullrich Loeffler, IDC country manager, and that just because New Zealand isn't home to operations the size of Google or WalMart, it doesn't mean the term is irelevant here.

The essence of big data, adds Michael Whitehead, CEO of data analysis company Wherescape, is that data is the source of the organisation's operation and improvement, rather than a by-product of that operation.New Zealand organisations, however, have yet to grasp the value of their current data operations, says EMC country manager Phil Patton. We're moving to the point where the technology is available so a corner dairy in New Zealand can mash together data on past buying patterns with a weather forecast for a hot day and predict how much extra ice-cream it should order, he says.

Patton's comment corresponded with the survey, which showed that 46 percent of resellers believe their customers are not up to snuff on UFB, and another 31 percent are unsure. A little more than half of the resellers, however, already have been queried by customers looking for advice on broadband.

The predominance of small companies here, Patton says, suggests that collecting a wide range of data will not result in huge data repositories or the special data management techniques which are necessary overseas.

The truly big data of international social media networks can also be valuable and high-capacity communications networks can make it more feasible for this to be grabbed out of the cloud and analysed, for example to judge reaction to a new product line by positive and negative comments on Facebook and Twitter.

However, this kind of analysis demands a different set of skills, which belong in the mainstream of the business and are unlikely to be found in the IT department. The expert in the big-data style of manipulation is variously described as a "data miner" and a "data scientist". Patton describes such a person as "a statistician on steroids". They are rare and there will be a substantial learning curve for New Zealand to cultivate such skills, panellists said.

There are also potential negative effects from use of data in a way that fails to take customer sensitivity into account. The audience heard an extreme example (reported in the New York Times) of the Target retail chain which attempted to predict from customers' buying patterns those who were likely to be or soon become pregnant and send them "appropriate" promotional material. When such material went to a 15-year-old, her father protested angrily. Target's analysis turned out to be right; she was pregnant; but it still didn't make for a happy customer.

More commonly, a company will have to consider the impact of using a customer's praise for a product to pitch to all their social-media "friends". While technology makes it possible, this too may not be a good commercial move. Panellist David Wasley of Trade Me, says his company cannot be as cavalier with its customer data as, say, Facebook is, because many of its customers are regulars. "We have to care about our users," he says. Committing money to a transaction with an unknown seller or buyer requires trust in the platform. "It's worth it to us to take care to retain that trust."

Members of the audience brought the discussion back to UFB/RBI and its suitability for big data. Aggregating and replicating relatively large databases is not a matter of bandwidth so much as latency, said one delegate. The perennial bugbear of data caps, said others, would be a limiting factor on big-data-style analysis until they disappeared.

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