Big data

The UK economy could gain £216bn through the better management.

As the amount of data continues to grow exponentially, compounded by the internet, social media, cloud computing and mobile devices, it poses both a challenge and an opportunity for organisations – how to manage, analyse and make use of the ever-increasing amount of data being generated.

In an economic study on ‘big data’ by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), sponsored by business analytics company SAS UK, we investigated how UK organisations, both public and private, can unlock the economic value of big data through the adoption of analytics.

The results show that ‘Data Equity’ – the economic value of data – has the potential be worth £216bn to the UK economy over the next five years – equivalent to more than the current defence, NHS and education and budgets combined.

The benefits of data equity are expected to manifest themselves in the creation of new jobs – Cebr predict that 58,000 could be created as a result of the entry to markets of new businesses, through which the business creation benefits are derived.

Business creation benefits and could raise employment as the result of new business start-ups and increased demand for data-specific roles. Improvements in market and customer intelligence in every sector will support entrepreneurial activity, allowing for more precise strategising and reduced uncertainty, therefore attracting new business start-ups into these markets.

The main efficiency gain is contributed through improvements to customer intelligence. Data-driven improvements in targeted customer marketing, the more effective meeting of demand and the analytical evaluation of customer behaviour is forecast to produce £74 billion in benefits over the next five years – the majority being driven by UK manufacturing (£45bn) and retail (£32bn).

We expect the manufacturing sector to see the largest innovation gain from the adoption of big data analytics. The utilisation of high-performance analytics could lead to new product development benefits of £8 billion in increased output over the next five years. The retail sector can also experience significant gains through innovation such as new consumer products which are expected to induce a £3 billion rise in output.

There is also much value to be unlocked from supply chain and logistical data. Cebr anticipates £46 billion in gains through using predictive analytics to better forecast demand, replenishment points and optimise stock and resource allocation to reduce costs.

The public sector is another key gainer. Government could save £2 billion in fraud detection and generation £4 billion through better performance management. A further £6 billion in efficiencies could be gained by analysing performance data, with the healthcare system benefiting by £2 billion.

This enhanced information, and ability to react dynamically to changes in the market landscape, will enable smaller businesses to compete more effectively with larger and more established ones, having reduced barriers to entry. Small retailers and manufacturers are anticipated to take significant advantage of this big data opportunity, generating £15 billion of new business.

Job creation is a key aspect of the report and experts agree that data equity has the potential to be as important to organisations as brand equity. As a result there is an increasing demand for ‘data scientists’ – highly skilled statisticians who work with data to derive business insights. We are already seeing the emergence of the Chief Data Officer in the US as organisations look to capitalise on their data equity for a competitive advantage, and it won’t be long until that trend crosses the pond.

But currently demand for data scientists outstrips supply, with the UK facing a particularly acute skills gap when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. This emphasises the need to teach high quality STEM skills at school and university to prepare the next generation of graduates for the big wide world of data.

As the volume of data created exponentially increases and big data’s value is unlocked to greater effect by technological advances, we would expect data to start appearing on the balance sheets of companies that begin to realise its value in financial terms. Furthermore, the efficiency and innovation gains generated from data-driven technologies can play a vital role in ensuring the competitiveness of the UK’s goods and services on the global stage, and thus generate a wider economic benefit beyond the value of the significant asset to its owner.

Tapping into the dizzying amount of big data could be the stimulus the UK economy has been searching for. High performance analytics has the power unlike any other technology to generate growth, reduce debt, create jobs, develop new innovations and deliver greater operational efficiencies. Organisations, large or small, government or commercial, must get to grips with the big data challenge, and use analytics to identify tomorrow’s opportunities.

Big Data: A man inspects a supercomputer in Paris. Credit: Getty

Shehan Mohamed is an economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research and Andy Cutler is the head of high performance analytics at SAS UK. They co-authored the report Data Equity: unlocking the value of big data.


Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.