Forget big data, we need smart data – Jonathan Rubinsztein

March 24, 2014

Jonathan Rubinsztein is the 2013 AIIA IT Professional of the Year and CEO of UXC Red Rock Consulting

It seems the IT industry has done it again.  Too often in the past the Technology Sector has created a huge bandwagon onto which every marketeer in the industry has jumped without anyone scrutinising the actual value being proposed, or making the case with any depth.  Pretty soon customers see through the empty and shallow proposition and the bubble bursts, leading to a backlash, job losses and diminished credibility.  I’m very concerned history is repeating itself.

Think Y2K, or RFID, or even Cloud.  While all of these propositions were more than valid, the huge bubble in vacuous marketing hype left the customer feeling short changed.  With Big Data I feel the case has not been made correctly.

Anyone who was at last year’s CeBit Keynote in Sydney would remember Obama CTO Harper Reed’s confronting comment – and I paraphrase – “Big Data is bovine excrement”.  His point was that the “Big Data” challenge was a storage one – back in 2007.  Today that challenge is solved.  The real challenge of data today is how to derive real value from it, not where to put it.  Today the industry is busy selling solutions to the wrong problem.

“When I hear Big Data, I immediately hear marketing” said Harper.  “All these great brands, they’ve really jumped into this marketing world of talking about the problems that are pretty much solved.”

We don’t need Big Data, we need Smart Data. There’s data tracking everything possible from our physical movements, to our buying and trading habits, to our relationships and thoughts.  But while GPS, Social and mobile surfing behaviour data are all religiously monitored, everyday products and even whole businesses are failing.  We’re busy collecting all this data, but we aren’t learning anything from it.  This is what the industry needs to solve.  As many others have pointed out, with all the trading data and predictive models available, we still didn’t see the GFC coming.

When was the last time you heard anyone talk about Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID)?  It was all anyone could talk about in 2006, but after everyone put tags on anything that moved, they derived no value from it because no one figured out where to put all the data they created, let alone how to learn anything from it.  As a result, ROI was minimal.  I’m having deja vu with Big Data.

The first problem is talent.  The news is currently peppered with surveys that identify a spectacular gap between the Big Data skills required and the talent available to meet those needs.  What are Australian Universities and Governments doing to solve these problems?  It remains the case that, used and educated effectively, the best computer we have access to is still the human brain.  But we don’t have enough people who know how to ask the right questions – query the data – let alone how to extract the answers.  This requires a unique blend of mathematics, psychology and business acumen.  I am not sure Australian universities are investing enough in cultivating these skills and businesses don’t know where to find them.

Equally, where are the smart algorithm apps that help smaller companies extract value from the data they have stored in databases like Oracle or Salesforce. A good example is SalesPredict in the US, which recently raised $1 million in seed funding to help small companies predict which sales leads are more likely to convert.  Advanced Pattern Discovery is a another tremendous application of Big Data but it requires very clever modelling software to produce.   This is a huge area of potential innovation Australian entrepreneurs could be investing in – with Government help – but I’m not hearing about them.  I would certainly like to see our local industry investing more in this area, far more than in marketing hype around big storage boxes.

Software doesn’t solve the big data issue and as the old saying goes, “a fool with a tool is still a fool”! It is crucial to consider the strategy that drives where to look for answers, which data sets to use and how to get the correct insights. This process is performed by humans, the technology just facilitates it. The gap we have is the human gap.  What is the industry in Australia doing to fill that gap?

As the nation furiously debates the future of education and skills development in both the TAFE and University spaces, this is an important new skill set that business desperately needs more talent in.  I would like to hear more discussion about how Government and Industry can invest in this development – much more than I want to hear about the latest “Big Data” solution.

Jonathan Rubinsztein is the 2013 AIIA IT Professional of the Year and CEO of UXC Red Rock Consulting, Australia’s largest independent provider of Oracle consulting and managed services .

3 Responses to Forget big data, we need smart data – Jonathan Rubinsztein

  1. Bruce Grime on March 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

    a great article which is full of good sense. only a few will take note and do something constructive about it.

  2. Benard Robertson-Dunn on March 24, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Agree – mostly.
    IMHO, we don’t need big data, we need smart people.

    However I totally agree with “The gap we have is the human gap”

    People build models that use the data. People who build poor models will come to bad conclusions.

    Two big traps are:

    1 to conflate correlation and cause and effect. Software can’t tell the difference, only humans can.

    2. to cherry pick data to support some ideologically driven theory. Governments have been known to do this. Big data (smart or otherwise) may just make things worse.

  3. Benard Robertson-Dunn on March 25, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Bad conclusions like this:
    Google flu-finding service diagnosed with ‘big data hubris’
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/03/23/goggle_flu_foo_fubar/

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