Over the last year I’ve exposed myself to a lot of Big Data blogs, articles, conferences, webinars, technologies, chats over beers, and industry investments.
Enthralling stuff to read about the potential that big data has to solve so many problems even those that we don’t even know we have.
Or as Donald Rumsfeld would say: "The unknown unknowns".
NB: This is an analysis by of Steve Sherlock, co-founder of Pablow AP
It’s serious business when look at the level of investment is in the billions for some startups. Right now a lot of emphasis is on the building of infrastructure with the likes of Cloudera, Hadoop and MongoDB to name just a few, raising in the US$ billions, and others like Splunk already doing an IPO in the US.
Many of these companies are predominantly focused on how to crunch and store data faster and smarter, providing tools for business to do so and particularly related to unstructured data.
They are not so much focused on identifying and solving business problems from an end users point of view. IBM boasted that they are creating 2.5 quintillion* bytes daily - "so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone".
Expedia's CTO Edmond Mesrobian, on the topic of Big Data, says:
"Just because big data science has enabled data to be stored more cheaply, doesn't mean the most important problems have been solved".
In the travel space I don’t think it’s difficult to see a gold mine of opportunities to better use data and business intelligence, so as to personalise the travel experience pretty much at every touch point.
However when I thought about the structure of travel industry data (structured vs non-structured) something just wasn’t quite gelling for me. I question to what extent does personalization of flight, hotel, car hire and insurance bookings, for example, really needs to leverage so called "Big Data".
It poses the question; is big data akin to using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack the travel personalization nut?
From my experience working with airlines, a lot of personalisation can be done with relational databases and business intelligence (rules engines), whereby the city pair, the time of year, fare class, the number of passengers, the age of the passenger, frequent flyer profile and past travel history, all can be leveraged to aid personalization and make a notable difference in user experience, and flight and ancillary uptake rates.
For example, when we know a customer’s previous flight was cancelled and they didn’t take cancellation insurance, we then have an opportunity during their next flight booking process, to offer cancellation insurance in real-time and specifically draw attention to the previous flight being cancelled.
Or if a customer previous flight was delayed, the booking engine simply cross references the passengers travel history, and then could offer an on-time performance cover (OTP), similar to what Wizz Air offers. Its Real-time personalization.
So far in these mostly structured data scenarios I don’t see a strong correlation with the need for big data, just relational database (to cross reference), and innovation and business intelligence.
It seems like the benefits of big data are mostly pushed by the providers of systems that store and crunch data. Don’t get me wrong, I think big data will play an important role in the evolution of travel distribution and personalization.
A good example of a travel company, is Hertz using big data to analyse customer comments from emails, blogs, surveys, call centres etc across its 8,000 plus global location, with the aim to identify problems and areas to improve in real-time.
A live cardiograph of service delivery, if you like.
That being said, I just don’t buy that ‘big data’ is the messiah coming to save us all when it comes to travel personalization for flights and ancillaries.
In some cases I believe its application can be like a sledgehammer or even like using a flame thrower to light a candle when all you need is a match.
The business people within travel organisations I believe need to be less intimidated or bamboozled by data scientist in white coats, and instead accept that the heavy lifting for real-time travel personalisation will come mostly from a customer focus, leveraging relational databases, rules engines, domain experience and clever niche products or atomization – and all without a quintillion bytes or a supercomputer, aka sledgehammer, in sight.
So the next time a systems provider evangelises applying big data to your existing structured data, consider that it could be akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when there are so many low fruit way to use structured data to personalize especially in the flight booking path.
NB: * quintillion is not a made up word, unlike gazillion.
NB2: This is an analysis by Steve Sherlock, an experienced travel industry entrepreneur and co-founder of Pablow API.
NB3:Messiah technology image via Shutterstock.