YOU can have all the data in the world at your fingertips but it doesn’t mean anything, if all you do is store it. There are many examples of how many businesses have used their data to make decisions faster (almost real time), smarter (not gut feel, but listening to the data and what it is telling them) and timely (data also has a use-by date).

Big data is an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex, it becomes difficult to process them using traditional data-processing applications.

Big data analytics use statistical techniques to run algorithms that identify patterns in the huge data sets. These patterns help businesses identify insights that allow for smarter, faster and timely decisions.

For example, Google used search terms by region in the United States to predict flu outbreaks faster than was possible using hospital data. Big data analytics can also help transport-related organisations identify where the next accident is likely to take place and the probability it will occur.

This is very useful, as the police, ambulance, fire brigade and re-routing systems can all proactively make decisions based on the information provided by big data analytics.

The result is that these units can strategically position themselves so they are more likely to be at the right place, at the right time, so the incident is cleared more quickly and the patients are transported more quickly to the hospital.

The amount of lives and money that can be saved because of the use of big data analytics is huge. This is the gold mine that transport organisations and hospitals can make better use of.

Take the first step

More examples can be cited but the most important question is: When do you start? The answer is today.

Data visualisation is key. Building a business intelligence system is the first step in better understanding big data. A business intelligence system is typically a dashboard which displays bar charts, pie charts and trend plots that, these days, are highly interactive and can tell a story in a few minutes. It is your starting point to understanding key variables and metrics related to your business profitability.

One key thing — whatever you decide to have on your dashboard, make sure it delivers actionable insights. Which means, if the traffic light system is red, the business user needs to know what to do versus if the traffic light system is green.


Go agile

I also recommend taking an agile approach. Here are three simple steps:

•  Ask questions: Start with a business problem, one whose solution is achievable in a reasonable space of time. Don’t be overwhelmed by the data. Instead, focus on the questions and gather insights to help you transform a problem into a business solution.

•  Get expert help: Start small. Take baby steps with someone with experience and the expertise to help you along the way. He can help you select the tools and techniques to extract actionable knowledge and insights.

•  Learn and measure: Yes, you may fall as you take your first steps. Fall and get up. Take this as a learning journey and improve the process or change the course. Measure the value gained with each step and repeat until you find the answers to the business questions or problems.

Soon you will be walking confidently, and then running and enjoying the power of big data analytics. You will find your gold mine.


Article by Dr Carol Hargreaves, chief of Enterprise Business Analytics, Institute of Systems Science (ISS), National University of Singapore. ISS assists businesses with courses that provide infocomm professionals with a rigorous understanding of enterprise business analytics. Courses are accredited under the National Infocomm Competency Framework, a joint development by the Infocomm Development Authority, Singapore Workforce Development Agency and industry experts. For more information, visit