You can normally expect CES to set the technobabble agenda for the first few months of any year, but this year, despite the hubbub about Wearable Devices, Home Automation and the Internet of Things, CES played second fiddle to the much bigger announcement of Google paying $3.2bn for Nest. On the face of it, it’s an outrageous amount to pay for a hardware company. The announcement a few weeks later that they were selling off Motorola Mobility for around the same amount made it look like some giant game of cards.
The initial reaction to the Nest acquisition from many commentators was that this just validated their view that CES was heralding the start of the Home Automation market. Long term players, like Control4, saw their share price rocket overnight. Most start-ups in this space have been complaining that their VCs dedicated their next board to persuading the CEO to redesign their business plan in the hope of emulating the Nest sale. On the other side, doomsayers predicted the demise of anyone else in the field as the Mountain View leviathan would take over Home Automation.
Most of what has been written feels like a knee-jerk reaction. What surprised me most was the speed with which Google rushed to say that it would not be using the data from Nest’s thermostats. That announcement came too quickly to be a reaction to media speculation about the data behemoth’s new-found ability to learn even more about users. It made no sense given Nest’s purchase value. It was like a top restaurant hiring Heston Blumenthal and then saying they were only employing him to go out and collect their lunchtime sandwiches. Google is about data. Why pay $3.2bn and then throw the associated data opportunity away? It implies that there’s a lot more behind this acquisition.
Over the past few years I’ve been working more and more with the large volumes of data that come from M2M and the Internet of Things. It wasn’t that long ago when “Big Data” was a novelty that was largely a vision of the future – more talked about than done. In a few short years it’s morphed into the “next big thing” that everyone needs to have and which will save our planet and our health systems. Of course, Big Data itself is of limited use. What changes the game is the insight which can be extracted from it. That’s why the headline description of big data can be unhelpful. By concentrating on the “big”, it places the spotlight on the mechanics of database structures, diverting attention from the real skills that the industry needs to make it valuable.
I’d like to share some things I’ve learnt from my experience working in this area. The first is the continuing hype. When I put together a conference on the use of big data at the Cabinet Office last year I was hard pressed to find anyone really doing it commercially – the hype was still far greater than the practice. I don’t think that much has changed since then. We’re still on the lower, gentle slope of the Gartner hype curve. My guess is that the only companies making significant money from big data at the moment are conference organisers and consultants. But attention is being paid.
The second is the type of skills we need to cultivate. We talk about Data Scientists as the new breed of practitioner, but that’s largely a self-invented title from data analysts who want more recognition. Extracting value from big data, or broad data if you want to be more accurate, is more than that. The best definition I’ve heard is that it’s about telling stories with Matlab. It’s not about Hadoop or Cassandra – they’re just the mechanics. The reality is that Big Data needs to be about Data Storytellers if it is going to be transformational.
The third thing is that this is something we do exceedingly well in London. Other places may collect more data, build bigger server farms or invent more capable database structures. But we tell better stories. So if you want to generate value from big data, London’s the place to set up your business.
I’ve spent the last few days at the Utility Analytics Week conference in Atlanta, where energy companies come together to discuss what they can do with the data they’re beginning to collect from smart meters. Despite the range of interesting and useful things that are possible, the majority of speakers converged on one application – reducing the level of energy theft. Specifically that seemed to mean stopping people stealing electricity to grow marijuana. A speaker from the Canadian supplier BC Hydro even went as far as saying that detecting marijuana growers was the main reason they’d decided to install smart meters.
The reason marijuana growers bypass their meters is that it traditionally takes quite a lot of power to run the growing lights for a loft-full of cannabis plants. Apparently 1,000W agricultural lights are needed for a set of fifteen to twenty plants. And now that the Canadian utilities are cracking down on energy thieves, the illicit trade is moving to the US. Which really got the US utility representatives hot under the collar. There’s nothing that riles a Southern utility manager as much as the knowledge that those pesky Canadians are turning his kids into reefer smoking zombies.
Hence the amount of effort being poured into revenue protection data analytics in an attempt to differentiate a closet pot grower from a faulty transformer. However, I think that by concentrating on theft, the utilities are missing an opportunity.
The current debate about the future of the NHS starts with a correct observation, which is that continuing in its current form is untenable. As the population ages and we get more complex treatment regimes, then, unless we change our approach to healthcare, the numbers don’t add up. But all the Government’s proposed reforms are doing is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I’d like to suggest something more radical, which is to think about how to make it self-funding, without increasing the strain on the public purse. Not by privatising it, but by extracting value from it and then exporting that value. In other words, let’s see if we can make the NHS a global brand and turn it into something that can generate revenue.
Before you dismiss it, stop and think. We’ve already done it with the BBC, which Superbrands rates as the fifth strongest brand in the UK. The BBC is respected and earns money around the world. Why don’t we think of the NHS in the same way? It doesn’t feature in any list of brands because nobody thinks of it like that. But there are some very good reasons why it should, particularly if we want it to be affordable in the future. The current Government (and every one before it) is missing a trick.
The NHS probably contains more data about treatment and outcomes than any other medical institution in the world. And so it should. For much of its life it’s been one of the world’s largest employers, accumulating detailed information on generations of the UK’s 60 million citizens. That’s an awful lot of “big data”. So here’s the question – “If we could extract and monetise that value, could we make the NHS pay for itself?” We need to extract that value and use it, then export the resulting expertise to make money from the rest of the world.