Big Data has been a buzzword of late and we at MiBrand want to understand everything about this seemingly new trend. It has been applied to many fields, including scientific research, political trends, medicine and health as well as consumer behaviour. Big data is of course extremely useful for the business community too, as a tool to understand customer needs, suppliers, internal operating procedures and so much more.
To understand more about big data specifically in the Malaysian context, we sat down with Sharala Axryd , CEO of The Centre of Applied Data Sciences (CADS).
What is Big Data?
Mrs. Sharala was generous enough to share her thought and analysis with us, so of course our first question was “What is big data?”
“I think that’s a very interesting question” she begins. “Not many people are aware of what big data is and what data science is. Big data itself is a pretty new term that became very ‘sexy’ in recent years” she adds.
According to her, data analytics itself is not new. The finance sector has been using it for the longest time but it has become significantly important because the availability of data out there has increased by manifold. There has been an exponential increase in the number of personal gadgets like PCs and smartphones, plus there are many apps and social media platforms. All of these are channels by which data can be harvested. Anything you do, especially on certain gadgets or online leaves a footprint which can be used by data analysts.
“Decisions and strategies based on gut feeling are more or less a thing of the past and anyone who doesn’t use big data or data analytics will soon run out of luck.”
Big Data Keeps Businesses Relevant
Big data is particularly important for businesses because you need insight into your company in order to stay relevant. These days businesses are being disrupted on a daily business and if you don’t understand what these disruptions are and how to solve them, you risk losing control of your business.
One example of how big data works is through google analytics. We can see this in action when we browse our e-mails and see advertisements that reflect our browsing history. For example if we had looked at a dress earlier, the side bar when we browse will be full of advertisements about where to buy clothes. Therefore businesses nowadays are mainly concerned about how and what their customers are thinking about and how do I target them.
This strategy no longer depends on chance, or blindly hoping that customers will walk into your shop. Decisions and strategies based on gut feeling are more or less a thing of the past and anyone who doesn’t use big data or data analytics will soon run out of luck.
Malaysians Upping Their Game
Sharala adds that recently, Harvard Business School partnered with CADS to run a course on Computing in Business using analytics. This is because they realize how Malaysia has stepped up its game in adopting big data strategies. Many industries have expressed their interest to adopt big data strategies in Malaysia, especially those in the manufacturing sector. Malaysia had vibrant manufacturing scene since there was cheap labour aplenty. However, this is no longer true and Malaysian manufacturers have to turn to big data to stay relevant and even change their business model. This is called disruption and it presents a survivability issue for many businesses.
All of them have made an effort to stay relevant with the times and Malaysian businesses are very competitive in this aspect.
Does Malaysia Have the Talent for Big Data?
CAD recently ran a Datathon involving teams from Universities from around the world. Participants were given 48 hours to predict the performance of a cryptocurrency. The UM team were the underdogs and they thought that they were only going to be in the top 20 and nothing more. To their great surprise they won first place when the results were announced, competing against much more experienced teams from Europe and Eastern Europe. This story, Mrs Sharala says with great confidence, illustrates how ready Malaysians are in terms of talent to harness and utilize big data.
Potential exists in abundance and if the correct opportunities are not created, these talents will leave and contribute even more to the brain drain.
Big Data and Privacy
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in the spotlight recently for allegedly allowing big data company Cambridge Analytica to harvest personal details from users to help the Trump campaign. This highlighted how privacy has always been an issue when data is collected for data analytics. However in recent years, more laws have been put in place to protect user privacy, especially on social media. One such law is the GDPR regulations introduced by the European Union and coming into effect in May 2018.
This law requires software and app developers to ask users specific questions on how their personal information should be used, instead of giving them a long multi-paged legal agreement which they have to agree to before being allowed to download anything. In this respect the GDPR is different because users can choose to say ‘no’ to certain ways their private information will be used, and still be able to download the app or software.
This works well for both the developer and end user, as users have more control over their private details, and it absolves developers from being the gatekeepers of personal information. Malaysia should also adopt this approach should they want to come up with data privacy legislation.
“Companies nowadays also face a catch-22 situation when it comes to data as within their own organizations there isn’t any democratization of data.”
The Current Challenges Facing the Big Data Movement
According to Sharala, the first and foremost issue, not just in Malaysia but all over the world is definitely a lack of talent. The issues used to be infra or investments, but this was about three years ago. Now, companies have sufficient investments but insufficient manpower with the necessary skill and domain language.
Companies nowadays also face a catch-22 situation when it comes to data as within their own organizations there isn’t any democratization of data. This means that they don’t have a system that allows for data to move freely. On the other hand we have a question of data privacy and data leaking. The way forward is to understand the importance of data and then work on the privacy and governance regulations surrounding it.
What is CADS ‘s Place in All This
According to Sharala, when she first started about four or five years ago, the talent pool for big data analytics was limited. She formed the company as one of the Telco companies needed a project done. As such, CADS was forced to nurture new talents in the big data field. This is how CADS started on its journey to train people from various academic backgrounds on how to be part of this emerging phenomenon. Sharala herself believes that people should not be streamlined as big data requires people from a slew of academic backgrounds including mathematics, statistics, programming, engineering, telecommunications and more. As such CADS takes in students not based on their CGPA, but based on how well they answer a challenge question that test their mathematical, programming and communication capabilities.
In addition to training new talents, Sharala also conducts short 2 hour workshops for SME business owners on how they can start applying data analytics in their own enterprises. She does this to inculcate an appreciation for small data, which she hopes will blossom into an adoption of big data analytics as time goes on.