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Big Data means Big Brother

Kim S. Nash | July 23, 2012
One credit bureau in the United States shows how Big Data is helping not just to sell information but also new ways to look at massive data to derive new business insights.

Breaking IT Traditions
Webb has been stepping up Equifax's analytics and collaboration capabilities, buying a business intelligence tools company and a workflow software vendor last year. The company spent US$1.7 billion in the past five years acquiring data-collection and technology companies. It's a long way from the paper ledgers the company kept through the first 50 of its 113 years in existence. If the useful life of data is two to 15 years, as Equifax said in its latest annual report, Webb wants to make the most of that time. He has set loose his 1,000-member IT group to attack big data, and they've come back with technology innovations that create competitive advantage, he said.

The way Equifax's data is stored and retrieved, for example, bucks tradition. Historically, companies with enormous amounts of data build giant warehouses, often running on massively parallel processing systems. The hardware is expensive, and the architecture of a relational database inhibits queries of unstructured data, Brooks said.

Instead, Equifax views the work as content delivery, rather than query processing. Data is spread across a grid of low-cost servers. IT developed proprietary distributed indexing technology to find information.

"Since our data sizes, transaction inquiry volumes and response-time requirements are all very challenging, we have to be careful about blindly following an industry-standard approach," Brooks said. "That can drive large and complex infrastructure demands that may not be necessary if you step back and think differently about the problem."

The IT group also tosses aside another worn idea. Where master data management projects seek the fabled single version of the truth, Brooks said there's no such thing. Equifax data gurus certainly spend time de-duplicating and cleansing data they integrate from public and private sources, but they've stopped fretting about finding and storing one definitive view of a consumer. Context is more important. "The reality is, they're all right. Now we think of observations more than truth," he said.

Webb encourages creativity in IT, saying the best results come from people who feel challenged. "You know who in your organisation wants to learn. Let them have the reins," he said. "Set out the problem and get out of the way."

Mining You
One common way to uncover insights is to mix and match data sets, looking for correlations. Do the credit limits on the department store charge cards of single women indicate anything about their propensity to lease cars? Such blue-sky dabbling might produce useful results for marketers. For example, Equifax's rival Experian recently discovered that adults who use social media are more likely than other Internet users to visit Starbucks. Starbucks -- or its coffee competitors -- may want to step up its ad buys on Facebook.


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