Across The Border

Big Data becoming necessary for ‘survival’, say experts, but Asian firms lagging behind in its use

The UN’s Global Pulse initiative predicts the use of digital data will have increased 44-fold, from 2007 to 2020

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2016, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 October, 2016, 8:56am

In the digital age, information is power. And for businesses, collecting and analysing data about customers and markets is not just a boon, it has become a necessity.

The use of digital, or so-called “Big Data”, according to the United Nations Global Pulse initiative, is expected to double every twenty months, increasing 44 times between 2007 and 2020.

“The current data explosion will continue to affect organisations beyond traditional businesses,” says Daniel Ng, senior director at Cloudera in Asia-Pacific.

“Moving forward, big data will become an integral part of almost every industry.”

The most commercial use for big data so far – effectively large volumes of real-time digital information – is as a tool for targeted advertising and marketing.

Forbes reported in 2015 that 90 per cent of companies had at least a quarter of their digital ad budgets “targeted” for specific customers, but big data is also now a vital component for streamlining internal processes, analysing market sentiment, mining social media, and even conduct DNA analysis.

“It’s not just for understanding consumer behaviour,” says Rita Lun, a former consultant for think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation. “Big data can be applied anywhere, everywhere.”

“Hong Kong is behind the west and other countries, but ... companies are finally becoming aware that big data is something they need to get into – although many are still at the very, very infant stage.”

But while big data is becoming “necessary component of monetisation globally”, businesses in Asia – including those in Hong Kong – appear less reluctant to fully capitalise on its promise, adds Daniel Yuen, former research director at tech advisory firm Gartner.

Hong Kong is behind the west and other countries, but ... companies are finally becoming aware that big data is something they need to get into – but many are still at the very, very infant stage
Rita Lun, former consultant for think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation

Part of the problem for China, adds branding expert Martin Lindstrom, is that innovation is not as “free-flowing” as it is in other countries, meaning companies in the country and region need convincing that big data is “very shiny and very appealing”.

Yuen said with big data awareness is already “approaching the tipping point” in Asia, as businesses start to understand the competitive need for it, firms have to embrace it as quickly as possible.

“If you don’t have the capability at the right level, it is simply like you’re blindfolded and you are riding on a horse, that’s also blindfolded,” he said. “It has become a necessary to survive.”

The lingering fear for many companies in China, say the experts, however, is the rise of big data has renewed “Big Brother” fears about data privacy.

In 2012, US retailer Target was the subject of huge scrutiny, after its algorithms actually predicted a teenage girl in Minnesota was pregnant, before she herself knew.

“Big data ... is incredibly intrusive because it mines millions of people’s data and predicts the behaviour of a consumer before they are even aware, and it can interfere in their lives,” Lindstrom adds.

Instead, he believes businesses should opt for “small data”, information based on personal interactions with consumers, that can provide a better picture of actual human behaviour.

“In an ideal world, you will see small data become the main driver of innovation, and I think we’re already seeing that amongst certain companies in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

Yuen adds that before any company accepts the use of big or small data, it has to gain the trust of its customers to take care of what they find out, as banks historically did with people’s money.

Regulations are in place, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), that provide levels of data security standards and encryption of credit card information, but more are likely to be demanded, as big data use increases.

One example of big data already in practice regionally, is by hotel chain Marriott International, which allows it “customer personalisation”, including special treatment on anniversaries or birthdays, a pillow preference, and knowledge of where they previously stayed.

“Customers now expect us to actually know everything about them,” Peggy Fang Roe, Marriott Asia-Pacific chief sales and marketing officer, told the Post.

Customers now expect us to actually know everything about them. I thought people would be concerned about privacy, but it seems less so today
Peggy Fang Roe, chief sales and marketing officer, Marriott Asia-Pacific

“I thought people would be concerned about privacy, but it seems less so today.”

Craig Smith, the company’s regional president and managing director, adds: “Data in our business actually gives the opportunity for better experiences”.

Adding to the trust issues, companies in Asia are also finding it hard to employ enough trained data professionals, according to Daniel Ng.

“Many smaller organisations are sceptical about big data, as they lack the staff with the right skills. They may also consider that big data means big costs, or they simply may be reluctant to change,” he told the Post.

To address Asia’s big data usage gap, Yuen and Lun are part of the steering committee for the Big Data for Business (B4B) Challenge, organised by Cyberport and Innobator, a competition which hopes to identify the upcoming big data stars of the future in Hong Kong.

Sponsors will not only offer funding to the best ideas and successful entrants, but also assign senior management as judges or mentors.

“After all these years, we finally see the ecosystem moving in a very positive but small step,” Lun said.

“We have started seeing, corporately, big data as a practice, not just technology, and we are finally seeing universities offering [relevant] courses.”

In future, it will be almost impossible for companies not to invest in any data analytics, Yuen said.

“If you’re not, you’ll certainly be left behind.”