A group of regional and international industry and academia experts and stakeholders gathered for their very first meeting at AUB to make heads and tails of big data issues and how to best proceed with opportunities and ideas, in order to extract more value from all the data originating in the Arab world.
Big data refers to extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions. It is an emerging technology referring to large or complex data processing where traditional methods and techniques remain inadequate, with much of the current IT investment going towards managing and maintaining it.
“Our initiative and goal is to build a consortium, and we are here to come up with a framework and set down an agenda to proceed,” said Fadi Zarakat, AUB electrical and computer engineering assistant professor, during the opening ceremony of ‘Arab Big Data Initiative First Meeting’ on 28-29 August, 2015 at the College Hall conference room. The event is in cooperation with the MOSAIC project, funded by the European Commission, and EU-MED ICT to build opportunities around ICT and Societal and Industrial Challenges of Horizon 2020.
Zaraket is the MOSAIC coordinator at AUB, and hopes that through this inaugural meeting, Arab stakeholders will organize themselves to create a platform through which Arabs could benefit from the huge amounts of data they generate. He explains that whether states and individuals want to decide on a vaccination campaign, manage energy or water resources, study consumption trends, or conduct in-depth research for a news article or blockbuster movie, they need easy and efficient ways to access and analyze big data; such a set-up is absent in the Arab region, and the meeting that took place at AUB was meant to kick-start the process.
“Big data is relatively new to AUB, and we only started last year with a conference on oil and gas computational technology,” said Fadl Moukalled, AUB FEA associate dean. “We are in the process of upgrading our infrastructure and increasing our bandwidth, and despite the fact that we are still far from our aim, the important thing is that we have started.”
“The big question is ‘are you able to exploit the data you have, can everyone use it and most importantly can you derive value from it’,” said keynote speaker Usama Fayyad, chief data officer (CDO) at Group MD - Barclays, London and Chairman Oasis500 in his ‘The rapidly changing Landscape of Data: case studies on challenges & opportunities at the Dawn of the Big Data Age’ talk. “The ideal is to have a data fusion center where you grab data from all over and pool them in one place to be analyzed.”
Fayyad, who was the first ever CDO in the industry during his stint with Yahoo!, explained that data comes in many forms and is highly non standard like texts, images, voice, etc and with no standard recipes. “And that is why the data scientist is the highest paid position in this industry,” he emphasized.
“Data volume is the easiest to deal with, and velocity, the rate at which the data is being created and accumulated can also be dealt with somewhat easily, but variety is the worst and most difficult aspect to manage,” he added. “Data is a huge asset and you can do many things if you know how to go about it.”
Fayyad recommended fusing data from the very start, standardizing it, applying good governance, taking into consideration timelines, establishing a good infrastructure and last but not least encrypting it in order to avoid theft and piracy issues.
“We need more data scientists but universities and academic institutions have always been slow in moving into new areas,” he concluded. “Behavioral data is a very powerful tool and can translate into huge profits and earnings if properly applied.”
“The world is creating new data at an unprecedented rate with more data going around in the internet in 2 seconds than there was in the entire internet 20 years ago,” said keynote speaker Anas Al Natsheh, technology senior business adviser at the Center for Measurements and Information Systems (CEMIS) and the principal lecturer of R&D and Innovation at Kajaani University of Applied Sciences in Finland in his ‘Big Data: The Business Perspective’ talk. “For example Walmart collects 2.5 petabytes of customer transaction data every hour. In addition 31.25 million messages are sent in Facebook per minute, and 347,222 tweets land on the web at the same time.”
According to Al Natsheh, who also works as an external adviser for the energy committee in the Russian parliament and for other bodies like the EU and European Investment Bank, Wikibon claims that the big data market is expected to be $50 billion in 2017 and according to McKinsey big data can generate a value of $1 trillion for companies, with the EU alone spending €2.5 billion on big data.
“From the company perspective, big data can help you to generate more value for the company through improved decision-making, generating more detailed performance information on everything from inventories to sick days,” he added. “Benefits of big data can be illustrated to generate a broader idea and inspire thinking on how big data can help both public and private organizations in Arabic countries.”
Al Natsheh exposed McKinsey’s five ways how companies can generate value from big data: unlocking value by making information transparent and usable at a high frequency; increasing the amount of transactional digital data offering more accurate and detailed performance info; narrowing customer segmentation and offering tailored products and services; improving decision-making; and developing the next generation products and services.
In terms of annual dollars and euros, it can be translated into: $300 billion for US health care; €250 billion for Europe’s public sector; $600 billion consumer surplus by using personal location data globally; and a 60% increase in operating margins for retailers.
A host of other panel speakers, hailing from the Arab world, exposed their own respective experiences, challenges and recommendations in the telecom, health, water, energy and media sectors.
In conclusion, the Arab Big Data Initiative took into consideration and reviewed all the notes and remarks taken by the various session chairs in health, energy, water, telecom, tourism and media, to set down a list of big data priorities and challenges, with talent building, information sharing, and vision and awareness of big data in the area topping the list.
The initiative’s end goal is to found a big data technology platform, composed of the industries and stakeholders that have expressed interest in such a venture, and to start drafting governing policies and mechanisms. The platform’s launch target schedule for the Mashriq area is to be decided in the forthcoming meeting in October in Amman, Jordan, and for the Maghreb area in November in Rabat, Morocco.