Big Data: The Link From Dinosaurs to Batman to Small Business

It’s hard to escape the hype around big data these days. From magazines to newspapers to TV, discussions of big data are everywhere. But for the average business or software developer, what does big data mean? What is its promise or potential? The answer depends on the business.

For Google, Facebook and others, big data is intelligence and revenue rolled into one. In cases like the British Museum, it’s about preserving and making freely available a corpus of better than 150 million assets, from maps to musical scores. But even the smallest businesses can begin to use data in new and creative ways.

Consider the case of seasonal retail businesses, such as hardware stores. In years past, store owners manually managed inventory, attempting to anticipate demand for their wares. Today, forward-looking businesses incorporate big data into that decision-making process.

Some turn to predictive algorithms, which are primed with years of inventory data to render better, more accurate projections of demand. Others factor freely available weather data into their inventory predictions. When long-term drought conditions are forecast, as they were prior to this spring, intelligent hardware store owners could lower their inventory of garden hoses and sprinklers and stock the parts necessary for deeper wells that may be dug.

And it goes far beyond internal or general sources, such as weather data. Two years ago the New York Times examined Netflix data to determine which movies were being rented, by neighborhood, in a dozen cities. If you were an entrepreneur looking to open a comic book store, knowing where the fans lived for movies like “Batman Begins,” “Captain America” or “Thor” would be invaluable. Or if you were opening a cooking supply store, planning your location and marketing around which boroughs were consumed by Julie and Julia could be a real competitive advantage.

The nonprofit sector can also benefit from big data. U.S. government census data, made available via the open API at www.census.gov, offers insights on poverty and homelessness. The Cornell Program on Applied Demographics, for example, uses the API to layer poverty statistics onto a map. From there, a savvy nonprofit could turn to the ProgrammableWeb’s collection of nonprofit APIs to tap into databases of potential volunteers.

Whatever the business and whatever the industry, there are datasets – some of them very large indeed – that can help make better decisions faster. The key to effectively using big data is to think creatively about how it can be leveraged. Consultants or contractors won’t necessarily see the same possibilities that you will. But keep an open mind, and big data will more than justify its hype.

*This post originally appeared on the Intuit Network.

About Stephen O’Grady: Stephen is an industry analyst and cofounder of RedMonk. He is based in Maine, a frequent traveler, ardent RedSox fan and focused on helping companies understand developers better and, in general, helping developers do what they do best. He is a paid contributor to the Intuit Network.

What Small Businesses Can Teach Us About Technology

For the majority of businesses, IT is a DIY proposition – do it yourself. That’s because most businesses are small businesses, which makes information technology decision-making at the Mom and Pop shops a DIY affair, far different than their larger business counterparts, where procurement is a managed process.

While the mechanics of technology decision-making for SMBs differ from those at large enterprises, their early embrace of the “Bring Your Own Device,” aka BYOD, strategy has lessons for the industry as a whole.

Try replacing a small business employee’s iPhone with a business-friendly BlackBerry and see how far you get. Chances are employees are using their own phones on the job. This consumerization of IT, in which consumers bring their own devices to work, is increasingly the rule at SMBs, not the exception.

This raises many questions for employers.

  • How can I connect these devices to existing services, including email and payment processing?
  • How can I protect against loss or theft?
  • How do I make sure company data doesn’t leave if the employee finds a new job?

The costs associated with these questions sound extreme, but the benefits of a BYOD strategy will, in most cases, more than offset the costs. Not surprisingly, when employees use devices they like and have chosen for themselves, they’re happier.

And there are hard savings as well. By putting employees in charge of their technology, a BYOD strategy also shifts the responsibility for managing and maintaining – and in some cases, purchasing – that device to the user, reducing the overall company’s technology costs. The small business that lets its people use their iPhones is the small business that doesn’t have to buy them corporate devices.

Aside from the discussion of benefits and downsides, a bigger question remains: Why is BYOD so popular?

The answer lies in a simple but infrequently acknowledged truth: Most business technologies deployed to users aren’t designed for users. They’re designed instead for buyers, whose agenda is far different than their individual employees. For decades, enterprise technology vendors courted CIOs, IT managers and other buyers with promises to make their life easier: automate deployment, ease the pains of management, and lock down individual devices so that users required permission to install even a new browser. The user experience, the interface’s aesthetics and any functionality not directly related to the business were afterthoughts, if they were thought of at all.

And then everything changed.

Five years ago this past January, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, forever transforming the way we communicate. For the first time, users had a device that was designed not for the employer and not for the carrier, but for no one other than the person using the device.

With its first mobile phone product, Apple not only leapfrogged every other device manufacturer on the planet, they completely reset users’ expectations. No longer would we have to settle for a device that was clumsy and awkward to use – which described virtually every device built for businesses. Users revolted and embraced, and today you see iPhones, iPads and dozens of other consumer-focused devices tacitly, even explicitly, supported within the enterprise.

For the businesses, then, the lesson is simple. Think carefully about who your customer is and who you’re building for. Because if you forget about the person who actually has to use your product, you can be sure that someone else won’t.

*This post originally appeared on the Intuit Network

About Stephen O’Grady:
Stephen O’Grady is an industry analyst and cofounder of RedMonk. He is based in Maine, a frequent traveler, ardent RedSox fan and focused on helping companies understand developers better and, in general, helping developers do what they do best. He is a paid contributor to the Intuit Network.