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Making sense of data

October 5, 2013

(Published in TTG 20.02.13)

With companies now able to store limitless amounts of data in the cloud, the next step is figuring out how to make sense of it. By Matthew Parsons

There’s a bit of a buzz about big data at the moment. John Lewis does it well. So does Apple. Even Starbucks has caught the big data bug. But what exactly is it, and does it have a role to play in the travel industry?

Speaking at the recent Travel Technology Europe conference at Earl’s Court, Sabre’s John Carlile sought to set the record straight: “It’s not about big, not about data; it’s about insight.”

The director of product marketing gave the example of Starbucks. If you look at your receipt, he said, you’d see codes for the coffee you bought, when you bought it and where you bought it. Globally, that information is collected every day and processed. Starbucks then “mines” the information so every branch can avoid big queues; it knows when the rushes are, where they are, and what people are buying at the time.

So why is this happening now? Surely it’s just common business sense? Not so, argued Graham Cook, managing director of Qubit. The big data phenomenon was only made possible due to the arrival of cloud computing.

Cook, who previously worked at Google, said: “Now it’s about collecting everything, but the next stage will be about doing something with it.”

Sabre’s Carlile said there were always three “V”s involved with big data: Volume (“You can’t do much with big data – you just have to leave it; you can’t move it”); velocity (“How fast is it coming in? It’s fast, but you can’t miss any of it out”); and variety (“Is the data social media, text, numbers?”).

Emmanuel Marchal from analytics firm Acuna said now, fortunately, there was a “new generation of disruption databases being built, all open source” that allow companies to store the data – and sometimes from as little as hundreds of pounds.

Doing big data well
As well as Starbucks, Cook cited as an example of good practice. The company takes the words that users type into its search box and then automatically bids on those words in Google Ad Words to drive more traffic to its site.

It also uses social streams. For example, a user on a hotel page may see “five people are now looking at this holiday, two have just bought it” flagged up – and this makes that browser feel confident in booking it, and it “reassures them they are not mad for thinking about booking it”, said Marchal.

Apple, meanwhile, is giving its customers the convenience of logging on to different devices with one ID, and also emailing customers their receipts. Carlile said Sabre used big data to help agents, as the GDS can let agents know about what’s about to happen, in terms of bookings. “We show seasonality, demand and where there’s an opportunity for conversion. It’s all real-time, (because) that’s where we’re headed,” he added.

“At the end of the day, the customer is always looking for more,” Qubit’s Cook said. “It’s about getting closer to your customers. We’re transforming concepts of how we serve the customer. As more people get digital, more data across multiple devices is being generated.”

In today’s social media world, it also pays to get closer to customers because of their influence, he added. “Look at the power of customers now – they are in control. The have the power to destroy companies.”

Dave O’Flanagan, chief executive at Irish start-up Boxever, agreed: “It’s all about getting to know your customers better: their likes, dislikes, buying behaviour – we give a lifecycle view of customer interactions. Companies don’t need data in the hands of a data scientist, but in the hands of an analyst.”

Furthermore, while currently most people are happy for daily reports of sales, now the game is to return those results in milliseconds, he added.

But the question remains – is big data a big deal? The answer depends on how you deal with your customers. If you’re already close to them, perhaps not. As seminar moderator Martin Cowley noted, this is something travel agents have actually been doing for a long time, but it’s just called small data. But if you are seeing more of your customers buying their holidays online, as the OTAs harness increasingly large amounts of data and gain better insight into visitors, then the answer is a big yes.

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