East Anglia Future 50

How Norfolk can make big data pay

PUBLISHED: 13:53 04 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:53 04 June 2015

Big Data

Big Data


If you think Big Data is just a buzz phrase, think again. It is likely to radically change the way businesses operate, consumers behave and technology is deployed. Gary Mead investigates

Advanced Knowledge Engineering Presentation. Pictured (from left) John Beer, Michael Carrick, Annabelle Lloyd-Carrick and Peter Twist. Picture: Ian BurtAdvanced Knowledge Engineering Presentation. Pictured (from left) John Beer, Michael Carrick, Annabelle Lloyd-Carrick and Peter Twist. Picture: Ian Burt

Does Big Data just mean Big Hype? Not entirely, but amid such a fast changing landscape it’s all too easy to lose direction. Data has always been around; the only difference today is the sheer volume.

Data capture and storage have grown exponentially. CEOs are under pressure to create brand new capabilities and models based on Big Data. They are understandably worried that if they don’t get to grips with it they will lose out to their competitors. Indeed, the vast majority of corporations are failing to exploit Big Data effectively for competitive advantage.

In a 2013 White Paper, ‘Getting Big Value from Big Data’, the German software company SAP says: “The key is to focus on the opportunities and rewards of Big Data initiatives rather than getting stuck in endless discussions about technology. The technologies supporting this space are evolving so fast that investing in capabilities is more important than investing in individual pieces of hardware and software.” As the opportunities to collect ever-increasing volumes of data explode, the biggest value of this data tidal wave – its commercialisation – can become an overwhelming task. Getting into the hearts and minds of customers via the collection of data, and spotting emergent trends within that data, is key.

According to Mike Young (pictured left), CIO with Aegis Media, “the trick is to understand what you are trying to achieve by collecting all this data. CEOs can feel a little overwhelmed by new media – their teenagers are on Facebook and come along and say ‘Why doesn’t your company have a Facebook page?’. For the business it’s not about having a Facebook page, but how does the data collected and interpreted from the new media help sell more products? It shouldn’t be data-gathering for its own sake. Data is only any good if you can draw valuable insights from it.” For the CEO the important thing is to focus on the actual challenges of the business;

The Norfolk Connection

Aventa Capital is developing a ‘big data’ campus in Norfolk set to become a world leading Centre for Knowledge Engineering.

John Beer, director of Aventa Capital, is behind the vision to develop a Centre for Advanced Knowledge Engineering at Downham Market. The centre will be the first bespoke facility of this kind in Europe to be built on the old RAF base at Downham Market, which is equidistant between Cambridge and Norwich. Onsite will be a commercially supported Institute of Data Science, business accelerator facilities, conference centre, hotel, restaurants and accommodation for 200 researchers/students. The campus will become the centre for UK and international companies focusing on Data Forensics and Cyber Security in the Bio-Informatics sector.

There’s an educational facility developed in partnership with the region’s leading universities, research institutes and schools, with the objective to create a skills and aspirations pipeline to meet the growing demands for commercial organisations in this sector.

This huge project is proceeding following planning permission approval, with an estimated £250 million investment into the development creating over 4,600 permanent jobs.

Big Data is just another tool in the box.

This voluminous data growth has been fuelled by the astonishing rise of the internet, from just 50 million users worldwide in 1998 to 2.7 billion (about 40% of the global population) today. Global e-commerce sales have been growing by some 20 per cent annually and in 2013 surpassed $1 trillion for the first time. Each single transaction can yield an enormous amount of information about the purchaser. Storing the monumental quantities of data gathered from e-commerce is the least of the problems: making sense of it and putting it to commercial use is giving rise to the new God of the marketplace – the statistical predictive analyst.

Daniel Singer, of Mavens, the research-led digital strategy agency, plays the same tune. “There’s a temptation to be in Twitter, to engage with these things, but the first question ought to be ‘What am I trying to achieve?’ Then the collecting of and dealing with data will have a purpose, make sense.” For corporations, data collection, whether from electronic point-of-sale, store loyalty cards, or surveys, is all about gleaning insights into consumer preferences. Once collected, the more important step is spotting trends and patterns, segmenting those ever-more finely, and then re-targeting brand advertising or marketing.

Big Data is not just about collecting greater volumes of consumer information; it’s also about making that information more transparent and usable at much higher frequency. Big Data allows ever-narrower segmentation of customers and therefore much more precisely tailored products or services. This sounds scarily intrusive but predictive statistical analysis has a potentially huge benefit: the elimination of the tendency towards unconscious human bias in favour of age, appearance, ethnicity and gender. If competence is what really matters, in any field, then human bias is just a distraction.

But it’s in marketing and advertising that Big Data is making the biggest inroads right now. Alan Mumby, Partner and Head of Technology, Entertainment and Communications at Odgers Berndtson London says: “Now we not only understand this data, but know how to use it in the universe of work; everything from retail to finance. This really is marketing Nirvana. I see Big Data as good for customers. No longer will they be subjected to scattershot advertising. It completely overturns the old aphorism of Lord Leverhulme about half his advertising money being wasted, but the trouble was he didn’t know which half.” Leverhulme might soon be history.

For Young, Aegis is sitting on the edge of an untapped gold mine, thanks to its data collection. Storage, retrieval, updating, visualising – “the churning and crunching of the vast amount of data we have and continually gather is all about building insights for our customers. Aegis provides all media support for General Motors worldwide, a $3 billion account. The ambition of GM – as for marketers in most organisations – is to know as much as they can about the person they want to sell to. Our data allows a more accurate construction of that picture. For me – for GM – perhaps the most critical part of all this data is visualisation; mapping it, so it can be grasped through immediately understandable graphics.”

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, in their 2013 book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, compared the growth of Big Data to a kind of social change ushered in by the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie.

If anything, that’s probably too conservative. Potentially, Big Data – even though it’s a misnomer – will create the kind of profound revolution not seen since the 19th century’s industrialisation.

• Gary Mead is a business journalist and former commodities editor of the Financial Times

• First published in OBSERVE: global business perspectives from Odgers Berndtson.

Find OBSERVE at or subscribe via the Apple app store, Google Play or at Twitter: @odgersberndston #obobserve

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