How Companies Use Big Data to Solve Business Problems

Notes from the McCombs Alumni Network’s 8th Annual Alumni Business Conference on February 8, 2012.

Michael HaslerMichael Hasler, Lecturer and Program Director, Master of Science in Business Analytics, McCombs School of Business

“If you can’t take data and tell a story with it, it is just overhead.”

Michael Hasler is on a mission to convince the world that the age of big data is the new oil boom.

“Just as oil transformed the economic landscape, data is driving that today,” he says. “The velocity of data is incredible, and there are opportunities, problems, and gaps in our skill base. Just as oil is useless unless it is refined, the same is true of data. You do not make decisions with data, you make decisions from information, which is refined from data.”

Hasler says that humans now do nearly 200 terabytes of activity on the Internet per second. “It’s not just the size, it is the churn, the velocity,” he explains.

New Tools to Uncover and Analyze Big Data

“We now have sensors, RFID tags, Facebook postings, all of these activities create data and it is virtually free to store this data, with a tremendous uptick in the computing capability,” he says. With this increase in data and computing capacity, there needs to be upgrades in the analysis tools. “I’m sorry Microsoft but you can’t analyze a terabyte of data on Excel spreadsheets,” he tells attendees with a smile.

“We also need the ability to visualize the data, with 3D spatial representation, surface graphs, and other ways to visualize the information. My goal is to turn students into storytellers,” he explains. “If you can’t take data and tell a story with it, it is just overhead.”

Big Data Poses Privacy Concerns

Hasler points out there is a $600 million potential annual consumer surplus from using personal location data globally, such as mailing coupons to customers based on past purchases. In a recent controversy Target was sending coupons for pregnancy and child care items to a man’s daughter and he wondered, “Why is Target sending my daughter these things?”

“Target has since changed how they deal with these things,” Hasler says, “but this guy’s problem was basically that Target knew his daughter was pregnant before he did.” Such issues fall squarely in the realm of social corporate responsibility and business ethics.

He reminds the attendees that analytics begin with opportunities, not information. “The age of big data does not guarantee better decisions, we need to understand which of the data is the right data,” he says.

When does data become overwhelming instead of insightful? Andrew Dillon, dean of the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, gives tips on dealing with information overload, including understanding the limits of our attention and memory. (Video)

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