by John Thuma, Teradata
Sometimes in my more reflective moments, I find myself thinking about the term “big data,” and asking the question, “Really?” I’m all for profit, cost avoidance, process optimization and all the other applications to which big data is commonly applied. It’s my life.
I just wonder if in the grand scheme of things, these goals truly qualify as “big.” I ask this not to diminish what is already being done with the technology. It is simply that I know that the technology is capable of achieving far, far more than we are asking of it.
There is a long established pattern in technology adoption that applies to big data and most everything else that tumbles out of tech development. The new thing emerges and it’s applied to changing the numerator or denominator of one equation that feeds a balance sheet. We increase revenue, decrease costs, reduce churn or create some other corporate benefit. We are programmed to plug technology into the established order. Going after the P&L should be a priority, but it’s one that is ultimately addressed at a tactical level. In that context, big data is being used in a narrow way.
No doubt big data thrives in that capacity and is delivering stunning results for businesses. It’s just that we are only using a small percentage of its potential. If we can get beyond tactics, see past P&L, it is realistic to begin to address big problems: patient well being, crime, hunger, climate change and many others. These are problems that many people, in and out of business, would support finding solutions if cost weren’t the issue. But cost is an issue. Consider a personal example. Maybe cutting your personal carbon emissions sounds like a great idea. It sounds great until you realize that it means giving up flying and forgoing that vacation to Hawaii you’ve booked.
We have to come up with solutions to problems that don’t detract from the things that make people or enterprises tick. The beauty of big data is that the right data combined with the right analytics can point to solutions that can achieve the larger good without detracting from corporate or individual imperatives.
Big data and advanced analytics are one of only a handful of modern achievements with the capacity to fundamentally change, well, the world. This technology is exponentially transformative and we simply can’t think of it using old technology adoption paradigms. It requires inspired thinking that comes from beyond the boardroom and the white board.
For example, Pope Francis in his recent encyclical on the environment pointed out that the worlds of both technology and economics have their own internal logic that keeps their progress focused on a narrow set of goals. They don’t take into account related systems such as the environment or the poor that are impacted by, but not necessarily part of those domains. What the Pope was in fact speaking about is a reflection of a data challenge. If we cast a wide enough net and design analytics to consider things beyond the confines of our domain, we can find solutions that deliver both ROI and a cascade of ancillary benefits that aren’t measured in dollars.
Politics aside, when President Obama appointed DJ Patil as U.S. Chief Data Scientist at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, it signaled an important realization that there is an opportunity to achieve goals and solve problems through very different means than ever before. It doesn’t take away the need to be smart about the economics of policy decisions. It’s an acknowledgement that we need solutions that take a big, broader view of the world and that data is the key.
I’m advocating bigger thinking, thinking that posits that we really can change the world and succeed in business at the same time. Doing good things bring us joy. What if we broaden our approach to big data analytics to look for solutions that lead to positive change for the common good? Then we really can change the world. Positive psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman, has opened up research into happiness and the concrete things we can do at work and at home to increase our happiness, which incidentally also increases our productivity.
Profit, fiscal responsibility and a better world are not mutually exclusive. If we ask a few more questions of our data as we make responsible decisions, we can achieve great things. It’s already happening.
It’s an insurance company shouldering the cost of tree trimming, replacing roofs, and keeping more people safely in their homes with less risk on the books. It’s a parent’s relief when their teen driver comes home safely, not knowing that a police officer at just the right intersection at the right time prevented a fatal accident. It’s keeping children out of hospitals, feeding the hungry, improving public housing, and much more, while still growing our businesses. It’s literally making the world a better place, increasing our joy, and using data for good.