Beautiful big data


uch of the buzz about big data is around analytics for marketing. Fair enough, says Olly Wenn – but there are also real-time sales benefits to be had from large-scale data crunching. “Big Data” is probably misnamed, because most of the time when this term crops up, we're really talking about “Loadsadata”. It's the overwhelming volume of data that's the issue for businesses these days. We've never had so much data to work with and so little time to deal with it.

The good news is that cloud computing now provides the horsepower you need to process these immense amounts of data without investing in hardware. You can also use cloud services to allocate specific chunks of time to data analysis on an ad hoc or a regular basis. This means that, at last, companies can start to use their growing data assets to benefit the business.

Traditionally – and by “traditionally” I suppose I mean “over the last year or so” – big data strategies have focused on analytics for marketing purposes. The idea is that you take the masses of data you've accrued through dealing with customers and mine it for patterns. You then use these patterns as input into your plans for products and markets.

There's no doubt that analytics provide a powerful tool for marketers. But in a near-real time business like travel, we can get much more value out of our data assets by adding analysis into the sales process.

Think of how many variables are involved in the travel business and the complexity of their interrelationships. Even variables that sound simple turn out to be more complicated when you look at them closely. Take “number of children”, for example: the definition of “child” can change depending on whether you're relating it to a flight, a supplement, a hotel room or an attraction. A UK travel business has to collect and track a large number of variables for 365 days a year, across (say) 15 departure points and 150 destinations each containing 30 or 40 hotels.

That's a lot of data – and it's not shrinking. Competitive businesses can't avoid adding to the complexity. They offer complex products that include loss leaders, for example, and they need to modify them frequently. The maths of the business model is becoming ever harder to perform, especially as availability and price are also subject to constant change. IT departments just can't keep up. They're finding that the big iron they bought to see them through a ten year period is exhausted after four. The speed of change in our business variables is outstripping our ability to install and manage dedicated systems installations.

Many businesses rely on the overnight computing window to calculate offer prices for the next day. That window is finite. Also, because key variables in the mix are moving to real-time values, the morning's prices look more like ballpark estimates than genuine customer propositions. Spinning an offer up to a confirmed availability and price demands real-time access to Galileo or Amadeus – which can take 15 seconds per query. So, travel IT teams are being squeezed at both ends – fighting to build credible overnight tables and struggling to shorten delays when customers show genuine interest during the day.

Here's where the cloud comes in. You can pump all your relevant data up into the cloud, churn it for an hour on a slew of paid-by-the-hour servers, and complete the next-day tables that way. Similarly you can use the cloud's flexibility to multiply the number of access points you have to the big flight information systems, so that customers don't find themselves waiting in a queue while you query Galileo or Amadeus.

So big data isn't just about marketing. It's also about improving sales, enhancing the customer experience – and saving the sanity of your IT team. To learn more about what big data can do for you, please get in touch.