Big planet, small data
I had the privilege of spending time at the Le Web conference in London this week and learned a few things. As its name might suggest, Le Web is Europe’s largest tech conference and has taken place in Paris every December since 2004 and is very highly regarded. Acknowledging the UK’s fast growing tech ecosystem, the organisers added an extra summer Le Web in London for 2012.
So, what did I pick up?
Firstly, while the world of tech still has its center of gravity in Silicon Valley, the dynamics of web distribution are definitely changing that. And that’s mostly because with a few notable exceptions like Microsoft, pre-web era software just didn’t travel very well.
That’s in part due to the fact that regional business communities from which PC-era software businesses emerged were parochial and inwardly facing, and because selling software overseas used to require old world operational scale.
Today it’s different.
Marc Andreessen, renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former co-founder of Netscape, perfectly captured the essence of how things are changing in Why Software Is Eating The World.
“Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.”
Xero is actually a great case in point. When I joined Xero in 2009 I’m quite certain that I’d never knowingly used – never mind purchased – software from New Zealand. And it’s not like I’ve led a sheltered life, I’ve been in software for almost twenty-five years.
So, while the origins of software used to be fundamentally and unavoidably rock-hard relevant, I’m totally convinced that today it’s approaching complete and fundamental irrelevance.
So much so that it was through networking with people at Le Web this week that I concluded that one recent if dubious side effect of web globalization permits me to claim my rightful place as the Worlds’ Most Remote Software Exec* at 18,760 km away from Xero’s HQ. That is unless there’s a Jakarta based software business with an office in Bogota, or indeed vice versa.
Anyway, back to the future and what I took away from Le Web.
A recurring topic du jour generally and one which was also covered at Le Web is Big Data which for the most part I find a bit of a snooze. In short, big data refers to the emerging practice of deeply and broadly analysing, mining and inferring trends and rich insight from very large sets of data, often interrelated from different sources.
One of the more interesting examples of big data is the insight you can now apparently obtain from analysing open data sources to the extent that the regional incidences of a cold and flu virus can now be tracked up to an accuracy of 80% by analysing people whining about their symptoms on Twitter.
That’s all well and good if you’re a global pharmaceutical business but not really very useful if you’re a small business.
Where I see future opportunities for practical advancement in data analytics around services like accounting don’t so much lie in big data as they do in the small data relationships that could exist among collaboratively integrated datasets like banking and other small business data.
For example, it’s not that hard to imagine a scenario whereby your bank feed data contains a credit card expense item from a local restaurant on a weekday which could be filtered against your calendar data to determine that an expense item should be automatically created and coded on your behalf as entertaining clients, possibly even with the names of the people present.
That’s a pretty simplistic example and actually, we’re not really very far from realising that kind of logical transactional data flow today. But take it a few stages farther and you get to a point where the notion of ambient accounting** begins to emerge where the responsibility we have as individuals to remember to log, track and manually enter basic transactional information fades into the background and it’s all just automated for us.
And when you consider that smartphones like the iPhone already have fourteen individual data sensors and we have a new generation of personal telemetry widgets like the Fitbit emerging, we might not be that far away.
So, forget big data. Small Data is the next next big thing.
* since the circumference of Earth is just over 40,000 km it’s only possible to travel around 20,000 km in any one direction before you start coming back the other way.
** ambient accounting isn’t the best label but I like it because it sounds cool in the Brian Eno sense of cool.
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