Big Data, Big Opportunity, Big Quandary

By Laura Haight
Originally published as the Digital Maven by the Upstate Business Journal on April 26, 2013 

It is everywhere. The barista at your local coffee shop knows when the temperature drops below 45 more people will order scones during the mid-afternoon coffee rush, your boss knows how many smoke breaks you take and how it coincides with a heavier or lighter workload, the online store you shop in emails you when new fashions by a company you've bought before come available in your size.

As a business, we have to be asking ourselves, are we gathering all the data we can so we can be as nimble and targeted, as proactive as these companies we do business with? And, just as importantly, do we know what we should - and what we shouldn’t - do with it?

Today's buzz phrase is "big data" - an analytics term that originally came about to describe datasets that were so big they were almost unusable. Today, we see big data in a different way - as a massive amount of available information to be analyzed and acted on, using it to create data-driven decisions and data-informed strategies.

As anyone with a treadmill in their bedroom that serves as a transfer station between the closet and the laundry basket knows: any tools is only useful if you use it.



  • Can you see the picture in the pattern? Technology has given us the capability to passively track employee behavior through radio frequency chips (RFID) embedded in employee badges. Through proximity tracking and other tech wizadry, they can track who your employees talk to and even analyze the through tone of voice how one employee interacts with another. It sounds very big brother-ish and it can be. The opportunity and the quandary is how transparent will you be with your employees and what will you use the data for.  One company learned through a deep analysis of this data that employees were 25 percent more productive after social interaction with team members on a break. They used the info to schedule regular breaks to facilitate that. 

The key here is not just to see the dots but to connect them. One function without the other is just voyeurism - and expensive voyeurism at that.

  • Once you collect data, how will you secure it? If you have an iPhone and use the Siri virtual assistant feature, you may be surprised to learn that the voice data is collected and stored by Apple for up to two years. Apple says some of the data is used to assist in improving the Siri product. And they are quick to point out that they connect data to random ID numbers that are not connected in any way to your email address or Apple ID.

    I don't see this as a big opportunity for Apple - except for a lawsuit. What you keep, can be accessed - by yourself, by others, by subpoena, by hackers and used in any number of unintended, unapproved and unimagined ways. If the idea of your conversations with Siri sitting on some server gives you pause, Apple says if you turn Siri off completely the data is immediately erased.



  • Why do you want to know? The more we know, the better our abilities to find you, communicate with you, put relevant products or services in front of you. But how often do we gather information from customers and then not use it? I consistently receive emails from online job sites that tell me they have identified jobs that match my resume and then presume to offer me auto mechanic and medical technician prospects.

The key to data isn't collecting it, it is using it. It is easy to go from desired provider to spammer if you don’t. There is a downside to unsubscribes and an even bigger downside to abuse reports. If you are using email marketing, your job isn't done when you hit send. Check your analytics and see what your rates of unsubs and abuse reports are. You could find yourself blacklisted, locked out by spam filters and even entire ISPs, if you aren’t looking.

Got a question? Come to Facebook and post it. We'll talk.