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Big data projects go beyond IT infrastructure

Big data creates a big test for enterprises: finding the right employees who can meld the technology and business needs in a way to make the data useful.

In enterprises, it is a widely accepted notion that big data has huge potential to deliver business value. But how do you derive that value?

IT pros this week shared their challenges in making use of big data and how combining data scientists, IT pros, social scientists and business leaders can turn the data into useful information. It was all part of at an executive forum held in Boston this week.

"When you think about human behavior, it is not just understanding statistical analysis and the business; you have to understand human behavior, those data elements and how they interact," said Mark Staples, vice president of technology services and CIO at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

Wentworth uses big data to build student profiles -- for example, they collect information about students from small towns, from single-parent families, as the first generation to enter higher education or in the middle class -- to predict their success rate. The school, in turn, can develop programs to ensure students from each group graduate.

"My staff, on the IT side, is trying to build the models so they can do the regression testing and everything else," Staples said, referring to IT's partner, Wentworth's Office of Institutional Research.

As positions open up at Wentworth, Staples said he is filling the spots with data-oriented people who can offer value both to the IT staff and the Office of Institutional Research.

"Technology is the easy part -- for the most part. I came here to hear about how folks morphed the culture, because that is the harder part," Staples said.

IT pros from various verticals -- including education, healthcare, pharmaceutical and financial -- are all looking to make use of big data.

Julio Somoza, managing director for technology and operations at Santander Bank, said financial institutions have long collected data, but need to find new ways to use big data.

Technology is the easy part -- for the most part. I came here to hear about how folks morphed the culture, because that is the harder part.
Mark Staplesvice president of technology services and CIO at Wentworth Institute of Technology

"The banking industry has used big data to meet regulations and that data can now be used for the business," he said. "Banking has been driven by meeting regulations and banking has to be driven by service to the customer."

At this week's workshop, about one-third of attendees said their organization is involved in a big data project or has one planned within a year. The same percentage also said that big data projects are a priority for their organization.

An enterprise architect at Tufts Health Plan, a health insurance provider based in Watertown, Mass., said his company has just recently started a big data initiative.

Using patient data to help predict medical outcomes is one use for his company, he said.

"Fraud detection is [also] a big one in healthcare," he said.

Big data projects are underway in organizations that get leadership on the trend from senior executives, according to Joe Weinman, author of the book Cloudonomics. Those leaders make funding big data projects a priority and set a tone of innovation, he said.

More importantly, Weinman said, middle management needs to have a vision and understand the corporate direction of big data initiatives so that these fit into a broader corporate context, but must also be close enough to the action to lead their teams to do things.

One of the best ways to come up with innovative ways to use big data is to hire the right people and tell them: "Here's money, you're hired -- go play," Weinman said.

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