In some ways, Spring of 2014 has been the spring of “big data fatigue.” This may have been predicted when Gartner published its 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies and placed Big Data almost at the peak of inflated expectations. A potential trigger for what may be a slide into the “trough of disillusionment” was the publication in the distinguished research journal Science showing the predictive accuracy of Google Flu Trends was particularly poor in 2013. The equally influential science journal Nature published the initial study of Google Flu Trends that was one of the original heralds of the promise of big data analytics in 2009.
In quick succession, the Harvard Business Review Blog published an opinion piece placing the failure of Google Flu Trends among the larger failures of common analytic approaches used in big data. The Financial Times followed three days later, covering similar ground and expanded its criticism to touch on the “articles of faith” currently fueling the excitement around the promises of big data. At the beginning of April, the New York Times published an opinion piece co-written by a professor of psychology and a professor of computer science at NYU titled “Eight (No, Nine!) Problems With Big Data.” These pieces and others were capped off by a piece on The Economist blog titled “The backlash against big data”, published April 28th.
An important counterpoint was published May 1 by a relatively rarely heard voice in the worlds of science, business, and computer science: The Executive Office of the President. The report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” summarizes the results of a 90 day study on the near-term future of big data. The report analyzes two aspects of this technological revolution: opportunity and privacy. Privacy is an important concern, but in the context of relative drubbing big data has taken in the press in the last twelve weeks, it is useful to focus on the aspects of the report that highlight why big data has only just begun to meet its potential. “Properly implemented, big data will become an historic driver of progress… [and] big data technologies will be transformative in every sphere of life, ” the authors write.
Key sections of the report highlights industries that will see substantial benefits from these new technologies in coming years. Examples include the algorithmic detection of Medicare and Medicaid fraud, showing a 3 to 1 ROI in the first year; the “open data” movement where the Federal government, through Data.gov, as well as cities such as New York and Chicago have made available to anyone vast amounts of data on a huge number of aspects of civic life; the game-changing preventative impact big data could have on personal health by analyzing a vast array of lifestyle factors and their combined effect; advanced crime predication systems in Memphis and Chicago; financial innovations helping the “unbanked” or “underbanked” based on new methods of evaluating creditworthiness; gains in manufacturing and transportation fueled by the use of senor data and the internet of things; and breakthroughs in the evaluation and individualization of education. In addition to the promise big data holds for government, the authors write “[b]ig data tools offer astonishing and powerful opportunities to unlock previously inaccessible insights from new and existing data sets. Big data can fuel developments and discoveries in health care and education, in agriculture and energy use, and in how businesses organize their supply chains and monitor their equipment.”
In The Economist piece cited above, the authors wisely point out that “[initial backlash] happened with the web and television, radio, motion pictures and the telegraph before it. Now it is simply big data’s turn to face the grumblers.” In a similar spirit, the authors of the White House study write “We are building the future we will inherit.”
We are at a critical juncture for businesses to seize the opportunity of big data, and leaders should not be swayed by a few bumps along the way. At Accenture Technology Labs, our Digital Customer initiative is working to help businesses create the best and most useful experiences for their customers. Our Data Insights group is working continuously to build the cutting-edge systems, analytics, and visualizations that will ensure that this future reaches its maximum promise. The only “big mistake,” to echo the Financial Times, would be not to press ahead
In an upcoming blog post, we’ll discuss in detail how Accenture Technology Labs is leading thought around consumer privacy concerns and future regulation for our clients, as well as other potential challenges of using predictive analytics when engaging with customers.
1If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the “hype cycle” the life of a technology is broken out into five parts: innovation, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment, and the plateau of productivity.