The first time I heard the term “big data”, I was standing in Belfast’s Farset Labs hackerspace, listening to two coders giggle manically about their plans for an upcoming hackathon.
Two and a half years later, I called one of them, Andrew Bolster. Bolster, a co-founder of Farset Labs and self-described “enfant terrible” of the Northern Irish tech scene, had since left Northern Ireland to continue his PhD studies in Liverpool. Why, I asked him, had he rubbed his hands with glee at the mention of the words “Big Data”?
“If I remember correctly, the reason I was excited about the data hackathon is that a lot of people make policy decisions based on their experience but with big data, you have an opportunity to remove that human element and make purely data-driven decisions. It also tickles my taste buds in terms of high performance computing. The problems that big data presents developers are really, really interesting.”
If you’re a wizard of the technical variety like Bolster, you’ll need no introduction to big data. If you’re like me - a recovering humanities student with an interest in technology but no idea how it all works - you’ll have vague visions of large, floating clouds of numbers but no idea what it actually means. The Wikipedia definition is:
“Big data is a broad term for data sets so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate. Challenges include analysis, capture, curation, search, sharing, storage, transfer, visualization, and information privacy.”
Whilst this is technically accurate, it doesn’t explain why big data is important - or how it’s going to change how we interact with products, online and offline, over the next 10 years. Even if you’re someone with no interest in technology beyond uploading pictures of your newborn to Facebook, big data is going to change your life in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. Below are some of the companies in NI working in the field:
Allstate: Allstate Insurance, an American company with offices in Northern Ireland, have developed a solution for drivers like me: Drivewise. According to Opal Perry, COO of Allstate’s Technology and Strategic Ventures division, Drivewise is a “telematics device or application which people can use while driving and then by analysing the driving behaviours, we give people feedback and can help, you know, do you tend to have to brake too hard and how can you improve your driving, then as a result of that how you might get a better insurance because you're a better driver.” Whilst the product is only sold in the US or Canada, Allstate has a team of developers in Northern Ireland working on it. The potential for the technology is interesting: in the future, companies like Allstate could use predictive analytics to identify patterns of driving behaviour amongst drivers who have accidents, perhaps allowing an early warning system to be developed or a rewards system whereby consistently good driving behaviours are rewarded with lower insurance rates. If all insurance companies used this model, it could potentially lower the number of road-related deaths and trauma - which in turn would have a positive effect on A&E services.
Modern Democracy: Modern Democracy was set up by Siobhan Donaghy, the former CTO of voting technology company Opt2Vote which was acquired by Idox in 2012 for £3.5M. The company has developed a range of cutting-edge solutions to improve voter engagement. “The technology is mobile app based, IOS and android, with a database backend,” says Siobhan. “We have a web dashboard linked to the apps that provide stats and analytics. We use agile development and work directly with the customer to ensure the products meet the customer requirements exactly.” The company is currently figuring out how to use big data and analytics to help political parties monitor and encourage voter engagement.
Quiz Fortune: QuizFortune is a trivia platform which tests users on their knowledge spanning hundreds of subjects - and uses the data gathered to profile users. Says Business Intelligence and Development Director Andrew Bowd: “The value enhancing element of QuizFortune's big data technology is that the platform begins to analyse and articulate user engagement at the lowest fundamental level - through individual questions and answers. Through the specifically developed QuizFortune dashboard a brand or organisation can profile their fans and followers based upon their knowledge of a particular question, a set of questions or an entire subject category, providing deep measurable information that other dashboards like Google Analytics only scratch the surface of. Based upon how the platform analyses both questions and quizzes QuizFortune are in the process of filing two U.S patents in Washington, D.C.”
Event plug: Want a ticket to Big Data Week Belfast, the BWD Belfast conference happening on Thursday 23rd April in the Titanic Building in Titanic Quarter? TechWatch readers get 30% off: just enter the promo code “TechWatch30” http://www.bdwbelfast.com/tickets.