Comment: Science of Big Data could bring big changes

Organisations large and small will benefit from harnessing information, writes Neil Logan
Neil LoganNeil Logan
Neil Logan

BY THE very nature of its name, “Big Data” sounds complex and abstract but you would have to have been living on another planet not to have heard the term uttered at some point over the last couple of years.

Big Data is big business and the global market for Big Data services is now worth an estimated £10 billion annually. The impact these services can have is much, much greater. The good news is that in Scotland we are well positioned to play a leading role in this existing area and the prize at stake is anything up to £20bn of economic benefit for Scotland Plc by 2020.

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Originally Big Data simply referred to data sets that were so large that existing tools and techniques couldn’t cope with them – for things like weather and geophysical analyses. With the advent of the internet and the proliferation of user devices like smartphones, there has been an unparalleled explosion in the amount of data being produced. Our web searches, tweets and text messages, YouTube videos, credit card payments and medical records are all now Big Data. Indeed, we’re now producing data so quickly that we will produce more in the next five years than all the previous years combined.

Locked within all that data is information, which can improve decision-making, helping make organisations large and small more competitive.

Big Data now encompasses far more than just large data sets. We now talk about the “four Vs of Big Data”: Volume (meaning the size of the data); Variety (different forms of data); Velocity (analysis of streaming data); and Veracity (uncertainty of data).

Data is now as important an asset as capital and manpower. As with any asset, access to it is only one element and how you make use of that asset is what really counts. Data science is the science of extracting the value locked within data and it is fast becoming the definitive source of competitive advantage – and that’s where Scotland may just have stolen a march, through a recent collaboration between the government, our public and private sectors and our leading academic institutions.

If things come off as we hope, it could mean our relatively small nation making big waves in Big Data. Scotland boasts some of the world’s top academic institutions. We have computing and data science talent only matched in a tiny number of international centres.

Recently, industry-wide body the Technology Advisory Group (TAG) launched the Data Opportunity Action Plan for Scotland, a plan we think will elevate our understanding of data science but more importantly how we can leverage that to achieve maximum benefit. TAG includes key stakeholders from government, academia and industry, with the aim of helping Scotland exploit the advantages it has in advanced technology and engineering.

Driving the update of data science by our many thousands of companies is a priority area, with research indicating that the SME segment provides our best opportunity for growth. We are targeting sectors such as healthcare, energy, utilities, financial services, digital technology and public services. If the exercise is successful, the results will be a game-changer.

The Data Lab, Scotland’s Data Science innovation centre, is a key part of the action plan and launched recently at hubs around the country – in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. We are confident we can be transformative to the companies we partner with. It’s going to be an exciting ride, so watch this space!

• Neil Logan is chairman of the Data Lab and chief technology officer at ­Lockheed Martin BTS (