Image by Kristina Velan.

Image by Kristina Velan.

During his opening remarks at last week’s inaugural Big Data and Analytics Summit in Toronto, Parin Kothari, TD Bank Group’s associate VP of digital channel strategy, asked the crowd, “What do you think of big data?”

The response came from one of the few women in the room: “It will solve all of my problems, but I’m not sure how.”

Judging from the sea of heads nodding in agreement, she had voiced what many of the other hundred or so sales consultants, data architects and CTOs in the room were thinking.

Organized by business research organization Strategy Institute, the intimate two-day no-frills conference addressed the elusive concept of big data and its implications for businesses large and small.

Michael Hansen, principal data engineer at Gilt Groupe, and privacy evangelist Ann Cavoukian were among the 16 data specialists from across North America who each shared 45 minutes worth of their insights. Here’s what we learned.

Learning to data drive

Since 2011, Google searches for “big data” have surged. It’s easy for the noise surrounding the buzzword to drown out the reality that many companies still aren’t using big data to inform their business decisions.

As David Corrigan, IBM’s director of product marketing, mentioned during his talk about practical uses of big data, “organizations only use about 12 percent of the data available to them.”

Chris Dias, TransUnion’s senior VP of product innovation and analytics, likened big data to a New Year’s resolution — everyone talks about it but not many people act on it.

Juice cleanses and waist-trimming workouts aside, there is evidence that some companies are starting to adapt and thrive in a data-driven environment.

The popularity of the search term, "big data," has risen dramatically since 2005. Image via Google Trends.

The popularity of the search term, “big data,” has risen dramatically since 2005. Image via Google Trends.

Anindya Ghose, professor of information, operations and management at NYU, revealed that Introduction to Python Programming is the most popular course at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

The increase in qualified data scientists flowing out of universities is being reflected on the business side. As we learned from Mehdi Tabib, Canada Post’s director of advanced analytics, there was one person on their data analytics team eight years ago. Now there are 80.

Bryan Pearson, president and CEO of marketing agency LoyaltyOne, told us how Disney is leveraging data to improve customer experience with MagicBands, wristbands that store personal information and preferences for resort attendees.

Let’s say you’ve taken your daughter to Disney World for her birthday and Frozen is her favourite movie. MagicBands make it possible for Elsa the Snow Queen to find your daughter in the park, greet her by name and wish her happy birthday.

From the three V’s to the three P’s

Gartner analyst Doug Laney pioneered the three V’s of big data in 2001: Volume, velocity, and variety. While these are still defining parameters, the conversation seems to have shifted to include the three P’s: Practicality, privacy, and people.

In the business world big data is useless without practical applications. Take for example, logistics at Canada Post. While the advent of email has put a dent in Canada Post’s profits, ecommerce growth has steered the organization’s focus towards parcel delivery.

Mehdi Tabib presented a case study where metrics like package size and time of delivery were used to determine the optimal size and design of community mailboxes, which will replace door-to-door delivery services by 2019.

Along with access to big data comes the possibility of privacy infringement. Ann Cavoukian, former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, is behind the Privacy by Design movement which, according to the website, adheres to the notion that “privacy assurance must become an organization’s default mode of operation.”

Cavoukian thinks the upfront cost of putting privacy first is minuscule compared to the reputational brand damage that companies risk by not respecting their customers’ privacy.

She argues that it’s possible to create a win-win situation for both the brand and the consumer, using software community Mozilla as an example.

John Jensen, Mozilla’s director of metrics, was on hand to present Mozilla’s philosophy that “it’s okay to collect data, as long as you’re transparent about it.” The community even has a blog dedicated to the subject of privacy.

When it comes down to it, big data is all about people. For a lot of companies, this means personalizing the customer experience to benefit both the organization and the individual.

LoyaltyOne’s Bryan Pearson discussed the rise of the relevance economy, where people increasingly expect to be treated as a “market of one,” and companies face the challenge of finding the right people to make that happen.

Ann Cavoukian

Ann Cavoukian is a proponent of “privacy by design.” Image by Kristina Velan.

Making way for data narrators

Understanding data is a tough job. Finding business analysts who can take data output and translate it so that it has meaning in the real world is an even harder one, says Mark Ramsey, former chief data officer at Samsung.

Queen’s University is attempting to address this gap with its Master of Management Analytics program, which is designed to teach students how to create value from data.

Hashmat Rohian, Aviva Canada’s AVP of data science and digital innovation, closed the conference with his idea that it’s not enough to employ data janitors; businesses need data narrators who can do the grunt work and turn data into a convincing story.

Khoi Truong, L’Oréal’s director of media and data optimization, is seeking out exactly these types of people. When asked about what skills he looks for in prospective employees, “making it happen on the market” and “taking risks” were key factors.

Mark Ramsey addresses the crowd. Image via Big Data & Summit's Twitter feed.

Mark Ramsey addresses the crowd. Image via Big Data & Analytics Summit’s Twitter feed.

Evolution, not revolution

Big data may be trendy, but it isn’t new. While NASA researchers Michael Cox and David Ellsworth are credited with coining the term in 1997, big data has been around since the advent of the so-called “information explosion” in the 1940s.

While we’ve come a long way since then, I left the conference with the sense that the predominantly data-literate business types in attendance were still perplexed about how to bring the companies they work for down the yellow brick road to data-driven profits. Sometimes that road is longer than we think.