Britain Has Big Plans for Big Data

“Big Data” is big business and a sector in which the United Kingdom is recognised as a world leader, although Sir Nigel Shadbolt, chairman and joint-founder of the Open Data Institute, admits it may have something of an image problem.

“We need to find a way to make data exciting because it seems so dull,” said Sir Nigel, who is also a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton.

Data is a new asset class with an “extraordinary” open and free availability, he said, with wide-ranging applications for the betterment of humanity.

This ranges from GPS, which was initially created for military applications, but is now found in virtually every new mobile communications device and vehicle. And every aspect of our modern lives depends on access to data, from transport to medicine, the environment, government, energy, manufacturing, heavy industry, sport and the workplace.

“I am trying to demonstrate how the power of open data can work and where value can be created in that,” Sir Nigel said, adding that “the genius is in finding simplicity in complexity.

And while Britain is the world-leader in commitment to open data, Japan languishes in 19th place on that list, underlining the opportunities that exist in a sector that Sir Nigel believes is presently experiencing “an avalanche” of opportunity.

One of the British companies that is tapping into the big data opportunities is QuantumBlack, an analytics software and services firm that is based in London and is focused on helping business to transform themselves using data and evidence-based decision-making.

“Continuous performance improvement is a key goal for leadership of global firms in terms of team productivity, asset management, speed to market for a product, or understanding the trade-offs involved in profitability,” said Simon Williams, CEO of the company. “And data is amplifying this need.

“Firms are increasingly being distinguished from each other by their ability to harness data – and the signals in that data – to enable decision-making that will drive performance, productivity and help to shape new products and services,” he aded. “In other words, data is the dark matter that exist inside organisations that, once understood and harnessed, is key to massive performance gain.”

To Williams, the term Big Data refers to the accelerating volume, velocity and variety of data that is now available to enhance understanding and support improved performance. But it’s more than that; It’s not about the size of your data, but the purpose to which it is being applied, he said.

That’s a belief shared by the Harvard Business Review, which in October 2012 released the findings of a study which determined, “companies in the top third of their industry in the use of data-driven decision making were, on average, 5 percent more productive and 6 percent more profitable than their competitors”.

Firms that react faster with greater precision to these new signals gain a sustained competitive edge, it added, which is amplified by the volume, variety and velocity of data.

Founded six years ago, QuantumBlack helps clients to improve their operational performance through the use of cutting-edge analytics to make the most of their data, working with some of the biggest names in the aerospace, automotive, civil engineering, energy, health, biopharma and sport sectors.

“The UK is one of the leading countries in Big Data, especially in the applied nature of data in solving problems,” said Williams. “There is an openness to use cutting-edge techniques within companies and on major projects – such as Crossrail – that acts as a lighthouse to demonstrate what can be achieved.”

And why is the UK so strong in this sector?

“We have access to an unique blend of skills; quantitative analysis from financial services, science from top universities, design from some of the best creatives in the world,” Williams said.

And QuantumBlack’s reputation means it is now getting noticed in Japan. The company is collaborating with one of the world’s leading management consulting firms in the Japanese high-tech sector and is supporting a major engineering concern involved in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The BT Group, the British telecommunications giant, also has products and services in the Big Data sphere, notably in its alliance with Dolby Laboratories Inc. on its BT MeetMe audio conferencing service.

“It is an audio conferencing service that makes conferencing exceptionally clear, natural, and productive by delivering an in-person experience with stunning audio quality,” said Chris Wilson, project manager for BT MeetMe with Dolby Voice.

“People on the call can clearly hear what is said, know who is speaking and can easily participate in the conversation,” he said. “As a result, people interact naturally, leading to improved productivity and distributed teams that work together more effectively.”

The ability for people and companies to collaborate in real-time across borders is “crucial for today’s fast-moving world,” Wilson added.

“Businesses need to be able to take decisions quickly in order to serve their customers and stay ahead of the competition,” he said. “This means involving key stakeholders from a wide range of countries, irrespective of whether they are at home, in the office or on the move.”

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Article by Julian Ryall, June 2015.