Business Analytics: Can’t we do it better?

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By Angel A. Juan, associate professor at UOC–IN3, & Helena R. Lourenço, associate professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Descriptive Business Analytics (DBA) refers to the pre-processing and processing of historical data gathered by companies in order to describe the real business context, generate information, and make rational decisions from the acquired knowledge.

Traditionally, DBA makes use of programming languages and software to “crunch” the raw data (e.g., R, Python, etc.), database concepts, and data analysis methods. Despite the fact that DBA is probably the most employed type of business analytics among practitioners in enterprises and institutions, it is not the only one.

In effect, after describing the business real context, one can also benefit from Predictive Business Analytics (PdBA), which relies on the use of time series analysis, regression models, and even machine learning methods in order to forecast the future or predict how some business factors will evolve under uncertainty scenarios. Of course, by adding PdBA to DBA we can make smarter decisions.

«The algorithms used in Prescriptive Business Analytics processes allow managers to “learn from the future”»

Nevertheless, a natural question arises, can’t we do it better? As expected, the answer is positive, and the way to do it is by using Prescriptive Business Analytics (PsBA). PsBA aims at supporting complex decision-making processes in business throughout the use of optimization and simulation algorithms (including metaheuristics and simheuristics). These algorithms allow managers to “learn from the future” (by performing what-if analysis), significantly increasing the efficiency of business processes and systems, reducing operations costs and, at the end of the day, raising companies’ benefits.

Why then companies and institutions are not massively using PsBA yet? Well, on the one hand PsBA methods require specific analytic skills and knowledge, which is not always available in all organizations. On the other hand, PsBA requires time to: (a) model real-life business processes and systems; and (b) develop the algorithms to efficiently deal with these issues. However, companies and governments in some of the most evolved countries (e.g., USA, Germany, UK) do frequently rely in PsBA algorithms to go smarter and gain competitive advantage in a global economy. Shouldn’t we — both organizations and analytics practitioners — be smarter too?

Note: With this post we — the people behind this blog — would like to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of this exciting project. During these 24 months, the blog has gathered nearly 60 responses to the main question, coming from different knowledge areas and backgrounds. We deeply thank both all contributors for their time devoted to this project and all the readers that have been checking the blog month after month, thus giving a sense to it.

Making Media Smarter

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By Johanna Blakley, Managing Director & Director of Research, The Norman Lear Center, University of Southern California.

The entertainment industry is notorious for adjusting its numbers to service an often inscrutable bottom line. And all of us — including everyone who variously produces or consumes media content — have been ill-served by cookie-cutter audience segmentation techniques and panel-based research methods that cannot account for what’s happening in the “long tail” of our global cultural economy.

The insidious audience segmentation techniques that valorize age, race, gender and income over every other facet of human identity have contributed to a media system rife with stereotypes about how humans tick. The tremendous data sets emerging from social media networks offer us the opportunity to understand ourselves, and our engagement with media, in a far more nuanced way (check out my TED talk about this).

«We want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audiences needs, values and taste»

For the last two years, I have been co-principal investigator on a major new research initiative at the University of Southern California: the Media Impact Project is a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by the Gates, Knight and Open Society Foundations, I’m optimistic that we can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.

Our vision here? Ultimately, we want media makers to have the resources to make data-driven decisions. Rather than depending on their “gut” alone, we encourage them to grapple with meaningful feedback information that demonstrates how real people have engaged with their work and what effects that interaction has produced.

We also want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audience’s needs, values and taste. For me, it’s really an issue of respect. Our media environment should be respectful and responsive to the needs of global audiences, rather than painfully engineered to fit stereotypical notions of the interests of a few prized demographic groups.

Note: Interested in media impact? Follow the Media Impact Project on Twitter at @mediametrics and find us on Facebook.

To be smart enough you need… Engagement!

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By José Carlos Cortizo, CMO and co-founder of BrainSINS, and co-founder of Gamification World Congress.

When we talk about technology, we forget very often that technology is… just technology. Current technological capabilities were unimaginable centuries or even a few decades ago, nevertheless, many problems that we expected to overcome with technology years ago, remain unsolved.

We must not forget that many of the problems we want to solve with technology are problems related to human behaviour. We say we want a greener world, because our society creates a tremendous amount of pollution and waste. We think that the Smart Cities concept will radically change today’s cities, while forgetting the challenge this will pose for the inhabitants of these cities when interacting with the technologies involved. From a technological point of view, wearable devices offer a world of endless possibilities, but we are still not sure how they will be accepted by society. In fact, Google Glass, which is still a prototype, has generated significant controversy regarding privacy among other aspects.

«The principal challenges posed by any disruptive technology come from the human being»

What is the use of putting more recycling containers in a city if we are not able to increase the proportion of people that use them properly? What is the use of online education campuses if educational models are still derived from the previous century? The principal challenges posed by any disruptive technology come from the human being. Reluctant to change, non-participative if something affects us very directly, and living a lifestyle that is ever more individualistic, self-centred and less focused on the communities we are a part of.

For all these reasons, and many more, some time ago I reached the conclusion that what we need is the engagement of all members of society. We need to focus on concepts more than specific technologies, on interaction with human beings more than with the devices that enable these interactions. We need to get people feeling that they are really participating in any new initiative, more than just thinking that as they are at the cutting edge of technology, this will automatically change their lives.

Therefore, in the last few years, I have focused a significant part of my work on the world of gamification, which teaches us to motivate people, to connect more frequently and more deeply with our communities and workers. And which has the ability to generate the engagement necessary to produce the changes society needs. Examples such as the Bottle Bank Arcade teach us how to introduce low technology elements focused on making people play while carrying out an activity that is useful for society (bottle recycling in this case), enabling the participants in these activities to become aware of how necessary they are.

«Gamification teaches us to motivate people, to connect more frequently and more deeply with our communities and workers»

In the United Kingdom, the Department for Work and Pensions launched a programme called Idea Street, like a suggestions box for the agency, rewarding workers for new ideas. This programme has been a success, proving that the introduction of small game elements creates extra motivation to involve employees in decision-making. This has already produced business results in the medium term, as it is estimated that in 2014 more than 30 million pounds were saved thanks to the application of some of the disruptive ideas from Idea Street.

Last year, in the Gamification World Congress 2014, we also saw many examples of the application of game mechanics in different fields such as education, health, marketing, sales force motivation, etc. Some of these examples are based on complex technologies, but many others can achieve results with technologies as accessible as “paper and pen”, “post-its”, and other elements accessible by everyone.

In short, technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives, helping us to achieve more intelligent societies. But we must not forget that people are what really change the world, and if any technology is to be successful, it must involve the people who are the “target audience” of the technology in question. Focusing more on people and less on technology will achieve more and better results.

A holistic approach to be ready for a smarter world

EMartinez_postBy Eduardo Martínez, consultant at Smart Cities Excellence Center, Indra

Analyzing the success, at least in affluence, of the Smart City Expo World Congress held in Barcelona last November, we could say that we are ready for a smarter world, or at least interested in this world full of opportunities for both, businesses and citizens and of course, for public administrations.

In a sense, I would say that the smart city concept could even seem a little bit disrespectful, I don’t know if we would tell a citizen of Memphis in ancient Egypt, or ancient Roman or Greek cities, that their cities were not smart because they didn’t use technology. The challenge is being able to leverage technology to meet the needs of an advanced city in an increasingly intelligent world, where objects have and will have more intelligence (or at least more communication skills, which by the way are not the same), but all with one purpose: that technology provides added value. It is necessary that this transformation is directly linked to civic participation and especially the double sustainability: economic project sustainability and the environmental one, probably even more important than the former.

«The challenge is being able to leverage technology to meet the needs of an advanced city in an increasingly intelligent world»

When you sit in front of an auditorium, a mayor, a TV camera, or a newspaper and begin to explain the smart cities concept, there is always the same chat about the need to adapt to a new paradigm where cities have 70% of the world population, 75% of energy consumption and 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. But if it ends up talking about a solution for your smartphone to locate the nearest pharmacy and guide you there through a map, it means that we were wrong at some point.

In fact, the mentioned congress drew something different this year, something that some of us had already bet: the urban platform. Revolving around the idea that solutions have to be comprehensive and holistically planned. The sensorification, data obtained, etc., must be reused and the different solutions or strategic areas of the city that make up the urban platform must seek the interaction among them holistically. And not because the concept is nice, but because like there is no smart city without citizens, without interconnected services with an integrated view there are no smart city services; there would be just “smart” solutions in a “dumb” city.

Are we ready to live in smart cities?

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By Javier Araujo, Smart Cities Business Development Manager, T-Systems Iberia

We are living in an ever more connected world thanks to all the devices at our disposal, but that is not enough, it is necessary to go one step further. We need networks that enable us to connect to the different spheres of our lives, as well as to improve and control our energy consumption. This is what we call smart networks.

All technological business sector players are aware of the challenges, for the public administration as well as companies and citizens, posed by the growth of cities. We are not just speaking about growth in the number of inhabitants or the square kilometres they occupy, but rather we are referring to efficient growth that is respectful with the environment, using natural resources as far as possible, so as to optimise the use of water, electricity, telecommunications, gas, transport, emergency and security services, public utilities, etc.

«The totally smart city will not arise until we first become smart citizens»

According to a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, the most dynamic cities in 2025 will be in the Far East, mostly in China. Another interesting fact is that only 600 urban centres currently generate 60% of global GDP. Researchers have indicated that there are three characteristics that have placed these cities in the lead. The first is that they have adopted a strategic approach, planning the changes, achieving intelligent and sustainable growth; secondly, they evaluate and manage expenses in a rigorous manner and invest transparently and responsibly, and finally, they obtain the maximum support for changes, forging a consensus between the affected parties and implementing it with highly qualified people.

Here we can highlight the importance of exploring possible alliances, searching for models and having a commitment to technology as a key factor for creating smarter cities. But the question is: Are we ready to live in smart cities? I think so, but what is clear is that the totally smart city will not arise until we first become citizens fully involved in achieving this goal, i.e., we become smart citizens. We already have the new technologies that are going to enable us to evolve towards the city of the future, but the key is to make sustainable and efficient use of each of them, so as to manage to live (in the long term) in the perfect city of the future.

The Internet of Things: what is it, where is it gaining traction and what does the future hold?

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By Rhonda Walker, Vice President, Corporate Marketing & Brand, Jasper Technologies

The Internet of Things (IoT), which can be thought of as the extension of the Internet to the physical world, is reshaping the human experience and changing the way business is done across every industry. From connected cars to heart pacemakers, from the Amazon Kindle to connected Heineken beer kegs, industries, user experiences and lives are being transformed.

Despite the term, the IoT isn’t about things; it is about services. At Jasper, we work with more than 1,000 enterprises that are embedding connectivity in an astonishing variety of different ways, enabling an amazing array of new benefits and experiences for customers, and unlocking new business models and revenue streams in their markets. When the products that companies sell are connected to the rest of the world in real-time, all the time, it fundamentally changes how businesses operate, interact with customers and make money. As a result value shifts from the products they make to the services they make possible.

«When the products that companies sell are connected to the rest of the world in real-time, all the time, it fundamentally changes how businesses operate, interact with customers and make money»

Looking at the IoT landscape, certain industries are leading the way. Automotive is at the forefront of innovation, and we already work with 12 of the world’s top automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), all of which are already starting to execute on their ‘connected car’ vision. Connected car applications range from in-car entertainment, to automated emergency services call-outs, real-time traffic monitoring, remote security capabilities and more. Plus industries that also serve drivers are leveraging vehicle telematics to deliver new experiences like usage-based insurance and online tracking to recover stolen vehicles. In other areas, like the connected home, smart metering, wearables and even food and beverage, the rate of implementation for new connected business models continues to accelerate.

Traction in the transportation category isn’t limited to cars, the aviation industry is also benefitting by embracing IoT. GE Aviation is using the Jasper platform to connect jet engines and thus better manage maintenance processes and dramatically reduce unplanned downtime. Connecting engines to centralized systems is one step that GE Aviation is taking to help reduce the more than 60,000 flight delays and cancellations per year that combine for more than $8 billion in operational costs annually.

Looking to the future, governments have seen the transformative potential of the IoT, and the value in both monetary terms and human experience. Earlier this year the UK government pledged to invest $75 million into companies developing devices that can communicate over the Internet; and the US government is expected to invest an enormous $1.2 trillion in IoT related technology over the next three years. With investment will come the education, talent, infrastructure, materials and most of all the motivation needed to enable the Internet of Things to reach its full potential.

Will better health-technology help us build a smarter world?

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By Lorenzo Sabatelli, founding director, GLOBMOD1

With regard to the health and healthcare sectors, I think we are getting everyday smarter and readier to the opportunities and challenges of a smarter world, but more work is needed to ensure that new technologies are used to better satisfy user, e.g. patient, necessities. For instance, it is essential that digital and mobile health systems and applications are designed taking into account the cognitive status of those who will actually use them. In fact, if applications require active participation of users and fairly steep learning curves, their performances will depend on the cognitive status and learning capacity of target patients, and may not be necessarily suitable for population groups that might otherwise greatly benefit from their use.

In general, it would be desirable for health technologies (from drugs to mobile applications) to include or be complemented by automated data-collection systems that allow real-time monitoring of effectiveness (e.g. adherence, intermediate health outcomes, health indicators, etc.) Of course, that would come with a few technical challenges, primarily associated with the volume, high frequency, and heterogeneity of data, and with obvious privacy concerns. Nevertheless, if properly managed and interpreted, this data may contribute to a better (almost real-time) understanding of what is working and what it is not.

«It is essential that new digital and mobile health systems and applications are designed taking into account the cognitive status of those who will actually use them»

This would not only help provide better healthcare but also help ensure sustainability of public health systems, and a fair profit for private insurers and providers. In most cases, the cost of introducing new technology is paid out of a fixed budget, which implies that every time we invest in a new piece of health-technology we are implicitly disinvesting from something else. Prioritization is therefore essential, and needs to be based on scientific, ethical, and economic considerations.

Ageing population, shrinking budgets, and the epidemiological transition from acute deadly diseases to chronic, long lasting and highly disabling diseases is, and will, force policy makers to rely more on technology for planning, delivering, and assessing the impact of healthcare programmes. The final objective is to improve health, and possibly to increase convenience, within the population, and to do it at an affordable cost.

From a global perspective, we are living a very exciting (almost science-fictional) time. With the contribution of multiple disciplines such as public health, genomics, proteomics, phylodynamics, game theory, and artificial intelligence new horizons in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and in the provision of healthcare are emerging. In addition, technology will hopefully take away most of the mechanical and less creative components of health research and healthcare operations, leaving more resources to focus on more creative and rewarding tasks.

«The final objective is to improve health, and possibly to increase convenience, within the population, and to do it at an affordable cost»

This has certainly been the case in the past, technology has freed time and resources for doing other things. Nevertheless, we should not forget that there are differences in health conditions, care, and systems between countries around the world, and sometimes even within the same country. And there are also differences in the way new technologies are perceived and used. There are great variations in the ways health systems are organized and funded, and in their ability to absorb and use new technology, which sometimes may depend on availability and training of personnel, and on the type of patients they have. And if the differences between health systems are big, even bigger (and growing) are the differences between health-information systems.

In the US, massive private and public resources are being invested into building and strengthening health-information capability to collect, analyze, and interpret data at different levels, from individual hospitals to the entire World. In most low-to-middle income countries there is little or no health-information capability, and in Europe we are somewhere in between. Collection and processing of data vary from country to country, and local ability to turn health (and other types of) data into unbiased actionable information is still relatively limited. This translates, into a distinctive operational and strategic disadvantage which will become more acute, and painful, in the forthcoming years.

There are also concerns associated with potential ‘side effects’ of health technology. For instance, with regard to potential addiction to e-health devices, and with regard to the potential economic burden of healthcare on low-income families. If we do not find smarter ways to reduce R&D costs and make health technology accessible and affordable to those who need it, we are going to see, even in Europe, more and more people significantly impoverished as a result of illness, especially of chronic illness.

«The integration of public health with genomics, proteomics, phylodynamics, game theory, and artificial intelligence will open new frontiers in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and in the provision of healthcare»

And then there is the whole issue of ensuring health and wellbeing while also preserving the environmental capacity to support healthy human life. Last year I started working on new quantitative metrics encompassing health and sustainability, and I realized that there is very little work done, and little financial resources to do it.

Getting ready for a ‘smarter world’ entails addressing these issues. Technology is definitely a key component, in the health sector and beyond, but a ‘smarter world’ should not only focus on individual pieces of technology, in a reductionist fashion. It needs to take a systemic approach and use all available resources to help develop individual and collective long-term human potential, ensuring a fair access to opportunities, quality healthcare and education, and a balanced distribution of risks and rewards.

It may all sound overambitious, but it is by setting the bar high, and by asking, and answering, a series of ambitious, and sometimes seemingly foolish, questions that we can mobilize the individual and collective energies necessary to get ready for future challenges, and to promote progress that really makes the world, and allows us all move forward.

 

1. This contribution was possible thanks to the kind collaboration of the BigDataWeek 2014 event in Barcelona, media140 and the CCCB.