Fill her up! I’ll have a litre of data, please


Funny how two seemingly different events can spark a thought…

  1. The freefall price in recent weeks of a barrel of brent crude (oil) – now under US$50 for those interested
  2. Rosie Baker, Editor of AdNews’s reference to ‘data is the new oil’ and the use of analytics for audience attendance at the Australian Open that started this week

It got me thinking, I’m sure I’ve heard that one before! In fact, if you type “data is the new oil” into Google you get about 566,000,000 results in 0.42 seconds. Now that’s gushing data!

Hers, is the latest of recent utterances of the term, which seems to be the ‘new’ (old) buzz phrase in marketing circles…but it is far from new and was in fact first attributed as far back as 2006 (or that’s as early as I can find reference to it).  So, data and big data have been living with us in one oily guise or another for nearly a decade. But the technological evolutions are only now truly bringing its promise to bear.

History would have us believe that John D Rockefeller pretty much found oil everywhere he looked, and increasingly, by comparison, we now find data wherever we look (especially in Marketing Trade Titles!), it is literally everywhere. To a degree it has overwhelmed many, but over the past few years increasing bandwidth, cloud storage, map reducing techniques and cluster processing has meant that we can start to tame the flow, transport and store that data.

The future of data continues to be an explosion in the utility of that very data, which via increased refining of the core product turns it into ever more sophisticated and useful forms, and in doing so, unlocks greater value for clients and agencies alike (and ultimately end consumers if it makes their product choices more relevant, maybe).

Now let’s stretch the analogy as far as we can:

Data as a lubricant is all about making an existing machine run more smoothly and efficiently.  Simple as that!  It was the first thing that oil was used for 120 years ago. Whereas now, sales data, econometric modelling, dashboards and reporting suites all allow us to make better, more efficient decisions to generate greater value with the resources available. This is the world we have historically inhabited, but things are moving on and data is no longer a small part of the system, it is becoming the fuel on which the system itself is built.

Data as fuel: The Internet is an invention at least as important as the internal combustion engine. An incredibly complex eco-system is being built to connect data gatherers, agencies, advertiser decision engines, exchanges, yield management systems and publishers.  We are now building ever more advanced engines to process this data.

Some of the emerging models utilising behavioural and contextual data are akin to a ‘turbo charger’ utilising data from one group who actually buy products to create inferred groups based on behaviour to then target other ‘lookie-likeys’.  A huge amount of effort has gone in to this area and whilst currently the industry are implementing this thinking largely in the online display space, this model will come to TV (see the work that MCN are doing with Quantium unveiled over the last couple of months), initially replacing low quality DR with more relevance and context. In a few years’ time, we will see TV ads with the same underlying message, but delivered in a wide variety of contexts created according to an optimised algorithm – and bought programmatically. It is already happening in pockets in OOH.

Data is also a fertiliser which makes other ideas flourish and grow. Data in and of itself is rapidly becoming a creative platform. We have a HUGE opportunity to be creative with data and are only just beginning to understand how data presented in the right way can effectively win over hearts and minds.

The ‘quantified self’ is an emerging movement of people measuring aspects of their lives and sharing the data for the ‘greater good’. We are even now beginning to see products built out of data that were simply not feasible before, like the Nike fuel band/Jawbone/Fitbit et al. that monitors your REM cycles to determine when you are in your deepest sleep cycle, and wakes you up by vibrating at the right point of your sleep cycle closest to being naturally awake.

This leads us nicely on to Data’s last use as Plastic. Plastic’s greatest strength is its ability to be formed into a wide variety of shapes. Most plastics are derived from oil and they have an enormous number of uses that revolutionised life in the mid-20th century.

Data products will do the same and revolutionise life in the next decade and beyond. The semantic web is now starting to become tangible.  Data sets are beginning to be marked up according to pre-agreed standards, called ontologies. The met office have one for the weather; Wikipedia’s called DBpedia, and search engines use as a way of searching html data sets. Wolfram Alpha is a computational search engine that has many, many datasets tagged semantically for more intelligent search, which powers things like siri (the iPhone’s talking assistant). As it is optimised and links to business listings, the consumer learns how to interface with it and the data set learns it will become more useful (there is an exponential law in here somewhere that could have your name on it).

If the web connected documents in the 90’s and social media has connected people in the 00’s, the semantic web will connect data in the remainder of this decade and then in the 2020’s we should see the rise of the meta web (a web of webs) where connected people, technology and data come together to create intelligent embedded services, the best ones will be invisible and just solve problems in the background, keeping you alive, saving you money and finding what you didn’t know you wanted.  The end of serendipity as we know it, perhaps?

Data will continue to create truly useful products which will be a significant driver of growth in our economy so we need to think creatively about what they might be. Unlike oil, data is not running out; it is constantly being created. The value is not simply in providing more data, but rather the right data in the right place at the right time… and ensuring that whilst there is consumer protection, that legislation does not shut down production, so to speak.

Like the Oil business, it is plenty hard and often very dirty work… but to the successful the rewards will be bountiful.

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