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Big Data Scotland: Facing the Future of Business

Brian Baglow

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BIG DATA Scotland 2017

The Big Data Scotland event, supported by ScotlandIS and The Data Lab was held on Thursday 7th December looking at how the data landscape continues to evolve and the opportunities opening up for businesses which can take advantage of this ongoing change.

 

Hot on the heels of the news that Edinburgh’s Data Scientist numbers have grown hugely in 2017, Big Data Scotland the country’s 4th annual data conference took place in the city centre.

Attended by over 200 senior technologists and business leaders, it focused on knowledge exchange, discussion and cross-pollination of all aspects of data for business.

The conference programme investigated the ongoing evolution of data analytics, the key tools, technologies and techniques, as well as how these can be applied to deliver tangible, actionable, practical insight and value to business.

Given the ubiquity of data and its value to almost every business, speakers came from an incredibly broad range of sectors, with talks ranging from data wrangling and visualisation to AI and industry 4.0. Given the high profile cyberattacks throughout 2017 data security, regulation, consent – and anonymisation were also on the agenda.

Big Data Scotland 2017: Kate Brett Goldman KBG SolutionsDigital Business Strategy: Laying the Foundations for a Data-Driven Organisation

The first speaker of the morning was Kate Goldman, the engaging and enthusiastic director of KBG Solutions. Kate provided energetic context for the conference overall, and delivered a real call to arms for breaking down barriers and cultural change within organisations.

Kate outlined the fundamental change in business towards data-driven processes and the still growing realisation within many companies that understanding their data is critical to long-term survival, as well as success. Kate highlighted the need for a company-wide collaborative approach to ensure that relevant data reaches the areas where it can actually be used.

The tendency for organisations to silo and compartmentalise data continues to be an issue for many organisations, said Kate, as is treating all data as equal. Finding the data which matters – which can make a real difference to your company will simplify things in the long run. Size is not the same as value in data terms.

It all comes down to collaboration, concluded Kate. Without a company-wide culture which recognises the value in data and a willingness to share – and act upon analytics – a business will not be able to benefit from the data it already holds, let alone use it more effectively to improve.

Big Data Scotland 2017: Dan Fiehn, Markerstudy GroupDriving Innovation and Improvement with Data

Dan Fiehn, the Chief Information Officer of MarkerStudy Group spoke next. Building on Kate’s overview, Dan discussed how companies can approach building an effective data strategy and transform to a data-driven organisation – as well as showing some truly toe-curling dashcam footage of traffic ‘incidents’.

A key theme was the use of data-driven insight and real-time data to optimise and improve business processes and the company’s performance as a whole. Using the advances of in-car technology, telemetry and two-way communication Dan highlighted the opportunities which advancing technology will bring for data-driven companies with a growing number of connected Internet-of-Things devices and increased automation.

MarkerStudy’s use of modelling and simulation was a key feature of the company’s increasing focus on the smart use of data, not only to analyse but predict consumer behaviour.

Dan used MarkerStudy’s own big data platform in insurance as an example of how companies can approach the sort of transformation required and the techniques which can be used to put data at the heart of an agile and responsive company, focused on the customer’s needs and expectations.

Big Data Scotland 2017: Malachy Devlin, Clyde SpaceAdvancing your Data Analytics Capabilities

Malachy Devlin, the Chief Operating Officer of Clyde Space picked up on the theme, looking at how companies – whatever stage they are at – can make better use of data. Malachy looked at the tools and techniques which SMEs can use to improve their business intelligence and supply chain – from a good old-fashioned spreadsheet, through to the latest data analytics packages.

The fact that using data effectively is not just an IT project was a recurring theme throughout the event. Malachy reiterated points from Kate and Dan, that effective use of data has to be done as part of a company-wide change. Getting the right business processes in place and the data itself to a point of maturity where it’s ready to be used are key (non-IT) aspects of the project, as is training staff properly. The project going live, he pointed out, is not the goal, merely the point where the hard work begins.

Malachy also highlighted the lessons which can be learned from implementing a data-driven strategy, from the obvious outcomes such as improvements in efficiency and increased revenue, to the more unexpected benefits, which are sometimes only recognised months after they have been implemented.

He finished with an investigation of emerging trends and technologies within the world of space data, from the growing Internet of Things to environmental monitoring. The ‘smallsat’ market is experiencing ongoing growth, as demand for more real-time data comes from an ever more diverse range of organisations.

It also has to be said that any talk which features rockets launches, satellites and SPACE is immediately awesome.


Breakouts

The morning ended with a variety of breakout sessions in which several business leaders and sponsoring companies gave detailed and in-depth insight into the issues they help to address.

  • Louis Archer, the product marketing manager of Tableau explored the topic of making an impact with data: from boring to beautiful. Starting with the goal of making smart use of business data, Louis pulled together elements of user engagement, intelligent design and the science behind design choices. Give users something they can respond to on visceral, behavioural and reflective levels vastly improves the chances of data being understood and used more intelligently. Making it simple for users to find, extract and act upon data they don’t know is there, rather than simply providing set outcomes is where some of the biggest differences can be made.
  • Inez Hogarth, the head of analytics for solidinsights, introduced the audience to the world of data analytics and the value of real insight to business intelligence. She emphasised the need for ‘storytelling’ to help companies use analytics more effectively and outlined the role of ‘data champions’ to help change the culture and accelerate a data-first approach within organisations.
  • David Rivett, the chief operating officer with Nalytics investigated the role of search within a data context. If a company does not know what data it holds, then how can it possibly make use of it? Worse yet, with GDPR looming, how can the company be sure it’s compliant? For many companies the issue of unstructured data is something which they are going to have to tackle in the near future. Finding out what you don’t know was a key theme from George, as well as how Nalytics can help to address this through precision search and enhanced visualisation.
  • Simon Wilson, the senior cyber security manager from Darktrace talked insider threat detection and the ways in which machine learning can be used to start identifying threats well before any breach occurs. As the infrastructure within companies grows ever more complex, including hybrid networks, cloud and IoT devices, Simon explained how companies can keep control of their data and ensure it’s secure.

Big Data Scotland 2017: Crowd GathersTechnical Labs

After lunch and networking, two technical labs took place.

The first from Dr Matthieu Poyade from Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation, who provided in-depth insight into the realm of visualisation. Starting with the premise that visualisation is all about communication, Matthieu looked at examples from history where visualising data provided solutions and insight which was not obvious from the raw data itself. The power of visualisation is such that ‘a picture is worth a thousand numbers’. Using the Challenger space shuttle disaster as a case study Matthieu then went on to highlight the dangers of poor decision making and presenting data spread across multiple complex formats, from charts to spreadsheets. An exploration of emerging virtual and augmented reality devices and their use to business for visualisation showed how powerful these technologies are likely to become to a growing number of markets in the near future.

The second workshop, from Stefan Papp (big data architect and evangelist) and Bernhard Ortner (senior data engineer, Think Big Analytics) focused on the technical distinctions between Apache Spark and Flink, looking at the capabilities of each and helping the audience to where they would be deployed most appropriately. Stefan and Bernhard then looking at the hand-on practical business applications for each, from fraud detection, to the use of real-time analytics.


Big Data Scotland 2017: Steven Faull, AggrekoFrom Reactive to Proactive to Predictive: Using Data to drive Customer Benefit

The afternoon keynotes kicked off with Steven Faull, the Head of Software & Analytics of industrial equipment provider Aggreko, who drilled down into how data can be used to improve customer experience.

Aggreko’s own wide-ranging data strategy, which incorporates data, telematics and remote monitoring was used as an example, as the company has brought all of these elements together to radically change the way in which the company approaches customer service, technical support and reliability of equipment. The company now uses predictive models to help maintain all of its equipment and ensure downtime and incidents are minimised.

The fact that such a ‘non-tech’ company is using data so effectively and across such a broad range of the business  provided some incredibly useful context for delegates, illustrating that every sector can benefit from smarter and more focused use of data.

Big Data Scotland 2017: Sarah ForbesDigital Hysteria, from Rhetoric to Reality

Sarah Forbes, the Projects and Innovation Director from Peterson was next on stage. Sarah looked at the ways in which data is impacting the whole supply chain within the oil and gas sector – and the challenges that brings.

Sarah focused on the disruptive nature of data in the context of problem solving and how successful companies will find ways to use data to solves problems they may not even been previously aware of.

One key challenge is in putting data into the hands of customers – companies which may have little or no experience in actually using data – in a which which enables them to make effective use of it. Educating clients, in some cases from first principles, can be more challenging than actually gathering and analysing the data, said Sarah.

Establishing a ‘single source of truth’ can enforce collaboration and help every part of the business to buy into the new paradigm. As with Aggreko, it was very encouraging to see a company outside the ‘technology’ sector pioneering a data-first approach and helping to change the mindset of an industry at large.

Big Data 2017: Scott Krueger, SkyscannerFrom Producers to Consumers: Data Engineering @ Skyscanner

The closing speaker was Scott Krueger, the Principal Data Engineer, at Edinburgh’s favourite tech unicorn, Skyscanner. Scott explored the evolution of data use within the company, from the initial identification and capture of data, through to turning that data into useful information.

Scott looked at ways in which Skyscanner has used data to address some of the biggest challenges facing the company, as well as how data engineering has been used to drive organisational strategy.

As a data-driven company, Scott provided detailed insight into the ways in which every decision within Skyscanner is driven by ‘complete, timely and accurate data’. Given the company’s rapid growth and diversity of data sources, pools, warehouses and third party partners, Scott outlined Skyscanner’s ‘unified log’ approach to the addition of new data systems, so that each new source needs to be plumbed into a single pipe, rather than integrated into every other system.

Skyscanner’s focus on a strategy of ‘total ownership’ i.e. ‘if you build it, you run it’ was also explained, in which developers have to use and be familiar with the operation of their software. This brings the developers into contact with the day-to-day operation of their software and the customer(s) using it. Skyscanner finds this greatly improves the quality of customer service and improving the software on an ongoing basis.

Scott concluded that the company’s approach to a single data ‘platform’ was a more efficient and effective way for the company to innovate more quickly and free time and resources for other projects.

In Conclusion

Big Data Scotland 2017 pulled together a diverse range of speakers and topics which illustrated a range of ways in which understanding and utilising data is fundamental to a growing number of companies. From the keynote speakers to the in-depth workshops, the event gave delegates to chance to learn more about how their own organisation can start the process of becoming a data-centric company, or accelerate their use of data based on advice and feedback from some pioneering companies.

 

Movers and shakers

Brian Baglow

Editor

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