THE BLOG

Big Data Is Accessible for All: Now We Must Fulfil Its Potential

30/09/2014 16:11 BST | Updated 29/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The announcement last week of IBM's new Watson Analytics has been heralded as the next major development in the Big Data revolution. Able to crunch vast amounts of information, the analysis tool will open up the possibilities of Big Data analysis to all industries, businesses and people.

The importance of this development cannot be understated. Why? Because in an increasingly digitalised economy, Big Data is at the forefront of how many industries - from pharmaceuticals to the arts - are changing how they have traditionally operated.

Since the 90s, Big Data has been driving change across the retail industry, by helping retailers understand both their customers' profiles and the products they love. As a result retailers were able to create personalised marketing campaigns, tailored to the customer's individual desires. This was the thinking behind the Tesco Clubcard, which we helped pioneer and which sought to redefine the relationship between retailer and consumer by providing greater insight into customers' spending patterns.

More recently, Big Data has been making waves across the arts industry. Theatre analytics company Purple Seven, of which I am a Director, is using Big Data analysis to interpret audience information so that theatres, agents and promoters in the UK can adjust their advertising and ticket offers by tapping into automated, intelligent "recommendation engines". It is only a matter of time until these insights reshape the museum, art galleries, film and wider entertainment industries.

And in healthcare, research and development is increasingly being underpinned by Big Data sourced from patient records, wearable health tech devices and the aggregation of decades of research. I have no doubt that these advancements will help in the development of fundamental treatments and cures, while improving the allocation of health funding.

For wider society, the way in which these industries are approaching Big Data is driving rapid transformation, both economically and socially. The British government estimates that by 2017 the Big Data industry will have boosted the UK economy by £216 billion and created 58,000 new jobs.

But convincing people of the enormous potential of Big Data still remains a challenge. According to Professor David Hand of Imperial College London, "Nobody wants 'data'. What they want are the answers". While Big Data does not provide all the answers, it offers a clear indication of where we should be looking for them.

To fully realise the potential of Big Data, we will require large strides forward in statistical methods and further technological advancements. But equally, we need to ensure that our economy and industries are equipped with employees who are fluent in the language of data analysis.

The replacement of ICT with a new "computing" curriculum, which includes coding lessons for children, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But we must also ensure that more of our universities are offering data science and programming courses. And for those that currently are, they must guarantee that the skills they offer are relevant to today's workplace and of real value to employers.

Furthermore, a wider cultural shift has to occur - one that goes beyond the classroom. Our attitude towards computer science and data analysis needs to change. Old stereotypes need to be softened and the cultural stigma associated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) industries dispensed with. We must reinforce the fact that studying science or maths opens up an enormous range of job opportunities.

Doing so will encourage more young people to consider STEM-based careers and to study science-based subjects at school and further or higher education. This is particularly pertinent for women, who make up 46% of the UK workforce but (excluding medicine) just 17% of the STEM workforce.

Data science has never been so powerful and accessible. But only with greater confidence from our industries in the benefits, coupled with equipping more young people with the relevant skills, will the potential of the Big Data revolution ever be fully realised. We must not let this opportunity pass.