How big data and its analysis has an impact on all our lives
BIG data analytics is what runs much business decision-making today. It’s a complex field, light years on from the basic spreadsheets and hit and miss analysis of consumer habits of 20 years ago.
Dr Aislinn Rice, managing director of Belfast-based Analytics Engines, is organising the seventh Big Data Belfast festival (www.bigdatabelfast.com) on October 24 at the ICC Waterfront.
She says: “It was conceived from Big Data week, a global tech community event. Last year we had 500 delegates and hope to improve on that.”
Just as big data analytics involves multiple disciplines, so this year’s Big Data Belfast, which has been supported by lead sponsor Ernst & Young plus many other companies including Allstate NI and Invest NI, presents an exciting range of expert speakers.
Dr Rice says: “It’s a really broad range with people like Paul Brook from Dell EMC, and experts such as CEO Rebecca Harding from Coriolis Technologies and Thom Kenney from Smashfly. It’s about people telling compelling data stories about business use and how it can become more effective.”
Analytics Engines, Aislinn Rice’s company, which was founded in 2008, employs a team of 25 who enable a range of business concerns to get more value from their data.
She said: “One of our clients is Flex Electronics. We’re helping them handle employee welfare for 200,000 people across 30 countries like Ukraine and Mexico, looking at their transport to work, their accommodation as many workers are put up in hotels, and social provision. This involves engaging with individuals and using an app for employees.”
The idea is to create a system that integrates their opinions with social media data. Aislinn Rice added: “Wherever data is to be accessed, the challenge is about understanding the value of the data to the organisation.”
The mature industry view is working out what type of data is available, then problem-solving.
“With Coriolis, we worked with a vast array of data points, some 20 billion, and wrote reports for trade analysts. Making sense of that is a huge task, crossing disciplines from data science to AI and machine learning.”
Analytics Engines managed to fine-tune the client’s hardware and software to increase the accuracy of the information passed on to banks, businesses and firms making investment decisions.
This is a creative area of IT. Describing the way Analytics Engines’ approach has enabled the National Gallery in London to evaluate the experience of visitors enjoying the Impressionist paintings inside, she said: “Today the tech is more accessible via cloud banks and Amazon intranet and we helped them understand their visitors’ views better.” So the organisation becomes more responsive and can increase footfall.
The ability to manipulate large amounts of information recently made Dr Rice and her team turn detective. Belfast City Council consulted them on a costly unpaid rates issue. They netted the Council £500,000 in recovered payment by using the Cobalt Rates Revenue Tool. This targets domestic properties being used for business purposes, building wrongly listed as vacant and new businesses liable for rates.
Dr Rice said: “We thought of the business data coming in concerning the payment of rates, identified the risk areas, then took the information about companies not paying rates to the inspectors.”
So big data and its analysis has an impact on all our lives. This runs from improved news and weather reporting to healthcare as the right approach to data can speed up interpretation of MRI scans leading to more rapid diagnosis.
Aislinn Rice gained her doctorate in chemistry from Queen’s with a medical application. “My subject dealt with the analysis of biopolymers, fluids from disease conditions such as arthritis. This can help with early detection and I worked with an organic chemist at Queen’s and an orthopaedic surgeon. It was an academic study with results for the greater good. I’ve always been interested in innovation and have always been steeped in tech.”
Her career has included work with Andor Technology plc and she is an Institute of Directors chartered director, keen to share her skills with the next generation.
Occasionally, the workings of big data have led to breaches of data or misuse, as in the Cambridge Analytica case. But Aislinn Rice is confident her company and others take an ethical line when working with people’s personal information.
“We always build in ethical considerations concerning privacy, and are concerned about compliance.
“It remains an exciting field to operate in. The market is starting to realise the value of data. All of the speakers will be talking about that. Our company is doing very well. New jobs are coming into Northern Ireland, such as Ernst & Young’s 136 jobs announced this month in areas such as emerging technology, also Aflac NI’s 150 IT jobs in its Belfast office and Contrast Security’s 120 jobs for R&D software developers.
“There’s a vibrant deal flow even though the situation in terms of Brexit is fluid. Northern Ireland is the best place after London to work in tech.”