News / Features



Is big data the opportunity of the century?

Only if you combine big data with big analytics to remove limitations on what is possible

By Mikael Hagstrom, SAS Executive VP

In the last few years, the industry has shifted from talking about "the cloud" to buzzing about "big data."

But the term big data is relative. It applies (per Gartner's assessment ) when extreme information management and processing issues "exceed the capability of traditional information technology along one or multiple dimensions to support the use of the information assets." In other words, data is only big if you can't manage it or analyze it.

For decades, IT has worked around known limitations by rolling data into structures defined by storage architectures. With methods that rely on indexing and primitive languages, you can see how quickly data becomes too big to manage. But what if we could put one single matrix in memory with one row per client, or create a billion rows, one for every citizen in the world's most dominant economy – the transatlantic economy or the second-largest economy, China? You can add one column for every variable and get responses in seconds to
any question with a simple point-and-click interface on a table that connects to affordable commodity hardware. This vision not only challenges our current notion of big data, it redefines the space as one that turns big data into, simply, data.

We call this "big analytics," and we see every day how it is moving the bar for what can be analyzed beyond current limitations.

Once you have big analytics, your "big data problem" suddenly presents big opportunities. For instance, a recent study conducted by the Centre for Economics and Business Research has identified £216 billion (US$346.7 billion) worth of potential benefits that big data could provide to the United Kingdom's economy alone through efficiency, innovation and creation gains.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Big data will also stimulate new ways of doing business. According to a recent American Chamber of Commerce study, The EU Single Market: A Work in Progress, the digital solutions opportunity for Europe – which includes big data solutions – is expected to be worth £10 billion. The study reports that firms using data-driven decision making are 5 percent to 6 percent more productive than other firms. Big analytics will allow more European businesses to benefit – and enable Europe to export its sleeping giant: the service industry. A separate study from American Chamber of Commerce, Europe 2020, showed that implementing the EU Service Directive could create 600,000 new jobs and boost EU GDP by as much as 1.5 percent per year.

Clearly, there are huge untapped opportunities in big data, but in many sectors, companies just don't know how to handle, identify and exploit these opportunities. The focus must move from moving and storing data to how to use analytics to tap into the growing data volumes in real time.

Essentially, if big data is the challenge, big analytics is the answer.

In just a short amount of time, it can enable governments, financial institutions and regulators to avoid the meltdowns that have characterized the financial landscape in recent years – and it can support creation, efficiency and innovation in business. The articles in this issue of Intelligence Quarterly offer a few good examples, including:

  • Telecom Italia analyzes network and traffic data to anticipate usage anomalies and deliver excellent customer service.

  • Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company uses big analytics on smart grid data to modernize its energy portfolio and encourage wiser energy uses.

  • Officers with the UK's West Midlands Police are getting faster and more accurate views of criminals with big data analytics.

  • Cosmos Bank in Taiwan gives board members and risk managers direct access to big data with new visual analytics technologies.

In each of these cases, success is determined by how effectively the organization a) harnesses data and uses it creatively, b) builds models that enable it to make more accurate predictions and to improve outcomes and c) transforms itself so that it is more agile in acting on reliable insight. Knowing that abundant data is emerging as a new asset class, it is clear that the social and economic benefits are infinite. Big data can also be used to underpin advancements affecting a host of public issues, including health care, unemployment, education and economic growth.

Plus, by eliminating the complexity of IT, the growth opportunity extends beyond large organizations, allowing small and medium businesses to participate and even enter into new or emerging markets.

The opportunities are clear. If we're going to leverage the new asset class, we're going to need the tools to tap into that growing asset. Big analytics is the best tool for getting the job done.

Bio: As head of an expanding global team of 4,500 professionals in 48 countries, Mikael Hagstrom is passionate about providing a culture where innovation can flourish, resulting in market leadership for the organization and its customers. He leads SAS' Europe, Middle East, Africa (EMEA) and Asia Pacific regions, which accounted for 54 percent of SAS' 2011 revenue, or $1.47 billion.


Gartner, "IT Glossary." Big Data definition
Data equity: Unlocking the value of big data. Centre for Economics and Business
Research, April 2012The EU Single Market: A Work in Progress. AmCham EU, November 9, 2012
Europe 2020: Competitive or Complacent. Daniel S. Hamilton, AmCham EU, 2011

Mikael Hagstrom, SAS Executive VP