Not long after filing his patent for the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell made a less-than-bold statement about his latest invention: “I truly believe that one day, there will be a telephone in every town in America.”
For all their disruptive influence, history’s innovators are not always the best at making predictions.
Today’s pioneers are far more likely to over-egg the potential of their technology, making overly grandiose claims that are knocked down when those promises fall flat: it happened with the web, and television, radio, motion pictures and the telegraph.
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So you can expect a few eyebrows were raised when the UK’s Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, named big data as one of the ‘eight great technologies’ that will propel the UK to future growth.
Back in 2012, the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted that big data technologies could provide up to £216 billion worth of benefits to the British economy over a five-year period, along with creating 58,000 jobs.
The government has since set aside £42 million to create The Alan Turing Institute, a flagship research centre charged with strengthening the UK’s ambitions to become a world leader in the analysis and application of big data.
Despite this momentum, big data is not without its critics. In March, FT Weekend published a four-page feature with the title ‘Big Data: are we making a big mistake?’, while in June The Guardian ran with ‘Big Data: saviour or sham?’.
The authors suggested that big data’s potential has been overhyped; analysts stand accused of making leaps of logic when interpreting the data, identifying causation where there is none, and making recommendations based on spurious correlations.
While there may be some truth in this, such criticism does not diminish the increasing value of big data in various fields, from business to healthcare, sport and space exploration.
The backlash is a typical response to ambitious claims about potential, even if the technology does end up transforming the world.
What is really needed to capture the full potential of big data is urgency and agency on the part of businesses and public-sector organisations alike.
And despite the hype, there are signs that executives are growing increasingly aware of the enormous potential big data presents.
Earlier this month, Accenture’s Industrial Insights Report found that over 76% of executives were expecting expenditure on big-data analytics to increase over the next year.
What’s more, big data is increasingly being recognised as a top corporate priority. Across the eight industries Accenture surveyed, big-data analytics was a top-three priority for between 84% and 94% of companies.
The driving force behind the uptake of big-data strategies within the business world has been the opportunity it offers firms to gain a competitive advantage.
The Accenture results backed this up, with 66% of executives fearful that competitors will gain market share at their expense if they fail to implement a strategy to analyse their data.
Data is one of the world’s most precious commodities and has many far-reaching implications that stretch beyond the corporate world.
The insights that big-data technologies can provide government alone will lead to better, smarter policy, cost reductions and might even save lives.
Buzzwords such as ‘joined-up government’ and ‘efficiency savings’ have been being bandied around for years, but now have the opportunity to make real progress.
It is no exaggeration to say that the data at the NHS’s disposal is one the UK’s most valuable assets. Within that myriad of information lies the key to a streamlined and cutting-edge health service.
Dating back to the 1940s, the NHS possesses vaults of information that, if centrally stored, could provide British doctors with an unparalleled insight into patient wellbeing.
Having access to whole-population data, for example, would allow drug side effects to be picked up where they would previously go unreported.
It doesn’t make sense to have this information scattered among the UK’s 10,000-plus GP surgeries – the UK needs to fully embrace the tangible benefits that big-data analytics could provide for its health service.
But the health service will only start benefiting once people reconcile the trade-off between individual privacy and the collective benefits of medical research.
While the US has managed to separate the revelations over spying and surveillance from discussions around big data, many in the UK view them as part of the same whole.
Earlier this year, the University of Irvine Medical Center in California unveiled a radical scheme that is helping reduce the number of deaths caused by medical error.
WANdisco is helping the hospital use big-data platform Hadoop to digitally collate, store and analyse all data relating to its patients’ conditions in real time.
Electronic signals sent out by equipment such as heart monitors, ventilators or wearable devices can now be monitored whether the patient is in hospital, at home or on the move.
This means that hospital staff are now alerted if a patient’s vital signs cross a key threshold – easing the burden on doctors and nurses whose heavy patient loads prevent 24-7 care – and essentially providing the equivalent of having a doctor in every room.
Problems around security, cost and privacy have so far inhibited the wholesale implementation of big data within the public sector, but innovations within enterprise IT mean that governments are now in a position where they can address these concerns and manage data in a way that provides compelling improvements to the service they provide.
>See also: Big data: not a magic pill, but an antidote
But big data is not a miracle cure that automatically makes an organisation function more efficiently. It requires implementing long-term strategies that have a far-reaching impact on the ways an enterprise approaches operations, innovation and competition.
In short, it necessitates making a shift that allows data intelligence to be at the heart of the organisation.
The truth is that big data strategies rely on leadership teams that set clear goals, define what success looks like and ask the right questions. And the most effective big-data strategies identify requirements first before leveraging infrastructure, data sources and analytics to support the opportunity.
Only once private and public sectors appreciate this will the UK fulfil George Osborne’s lofty ambitions for Britain to ‘’out-compete, out-smart and out-do the rest of the world’.
Sourced from David Richards, co-founder and CEO, WANdisco