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When Did Data Get So Big?



Big data has the potential to inform, challenge and evolve how companies engage their clients.

3 min read

Every minute of every day Facebook Messenger users share 216,302 photos, Netflix fans stream 86,805 hours of video and Google translates 69,500,000 words. This explosion in capacity and capability – driven by big data – is changing all of our lives.

For the past 325 years, Coutts has collected information about our clients and recommended solutions for their needs based on what we have learnt and know about them. This hasn’t changed but the exponential increase in the volumes of data available, means we now have a responsibility to ensure that there are efficient and considered ways of interpreting this ‘big data', and that we are putting it to good use for the benefit of our clients.

Big data can be generally defined as a very large collection of data, which can be mined for information. It is content, facts and figures on the internet, documents in the cloud and on databases, videos and photos on social media – it is an avalanche of material snowballing at a ridiculous rate. Yet increasingly, we’re getting better at making sense of this information.

There is a lot of big data about – so much so as to render statistics almost unfathomable and quickly defunct. According to IBM, every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data¹, and 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. Technology giant Cisco predicts that between 2016 and 2021 global IP (internet protocol) traffic will increase nearly threefold.²

“The insights delivered by overlaying large and unstructured data sets present a unique opportunity for private banks to provide a more tailored, frictionless service to clients.”
Adam Sorrin, Head Of CRM Solutions, Coutts

Big data can be broken down into structured and unstructured data. Structured data like spreadsheets and readings from machine sensors is easily searchable by basic algorithms. Computer programmes love this. Unstructured data is information that is not easy for software to understand, such as books and videos, photos, health records, emails and web pages. As we may expect, most big data is unstructured.

So what good, then, is big data? Sharper business analytics and smarter intelligence helps companies to target customers better and create products and services more suitable to them. But only if businesses have the appropriate non-machine capabilities, too. “One of the key areas for businesses is to find the right people to interpret big data,” says Professor Sofia Olhede, scientific director of the Big Data Institute at UCL. “It can all become gobbledegook if you’re not careful, so companies need technical staff who can not only understand, but effectively pass on this information to management.”

If tamed, big data could bring about better quality healthcare, banish traffic jams, help us to buy things quicker at better prices and provide more useful information about our communities. Examples now include recommendations on Netflix and how your cardio fitness scores compare to others on Fitbit.


Thousand Photos shared per minute through Facebook Messenger


Thousand Hours of Video streamed on Netflix per minute


Quintillion bytes of data created every day

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So what could all of this mean for financial services, and private banking more specifically? Private Banks have long enjoyed a richer and more connected view of their clients than perhaps their retail banking counterparts and so, on the surface at least, there may be a perception of little need for further external analysis. However, Adam Sorrin, Head of CRM Solutions, Coutts comments: “While a robust, single source of bank-created data remains a must, the insights delivered by overlaying large and unstructured data sets present a unique opportunity for private banks to provide a more tailored, frictionless service to clients.”

From a client receiving an unexpected gift on the arrival of a new baby, to facilitating networking events with like-minded individuals, Adam emphasises that big data presents the opportunity to delight and inform our clients. Understandably, the privacy question needs to be addressed, and here at Coutts we believe any data referencing our clients is as private as the conversations with their bankers. It reinforces that “we go to great lengths to keep our clients' data safe and secure. But more than that; as we build out our big data capability, we will use these new sources of insight to prioritise our clients’ needs above our own.”

“A great example of where large external data sets can be used to offer insight into the behaviours and lives of our clients is through social media.”
Steve Hewlett-Light, Head Of Content & Channels, Coutts

Whilst mining existing data more effectively will almost certainly yield better client experiences, the broader trend-spotting opportunity of true Big Data analysis offered by data science professionals is something else entirely. It could potentially help private banks to identify and react to the current and future needs of clients, and further tailor their service model and product offering accordingly as Steven Hewlett-Light, Head of Content & Channels at Coutts identifies. “A great example of where large external data sets can be used to offer insight into the behaviours and lives of our clients is through social media. Here is a huge data set from which we can spot trends and themes emerging that, properly interpreted and analysed, can influence the thought leadership content, future events and even the products and services that we offer to our clients.”

Even the much-heralded Internet of Things – where everything from fridges and watches to clothes are connected to the Internet – will also have a big influence on our daily lives and how banks and other companies serve our clients. “This will generate lots of big data, so we need to collect it skilfully and safely,” says Sofia. “Information may be stored in ways we never intended, so we could become more and more vulnerable as a result.” As the NHS hacking in May 2017 evidenced, big data springing big leaks is not even a future shock, but a here-and-now concern.

So for all the whizzy tech and algorithmic wizardry, the societal impacts of big data could be the deepest. While our lives may become more efficient and easier in many ways, says Sofia, even data scientists don’t necessarily believe that accelerationism – the theory that life (capitalism, specifically) should speed up to generate radical social change – is the best route. “As things develop at a more rapid pace, we need time to think about the implications of our progress,” says Sofia.

Key Takeaways

The world is creating extraordinary amounts of data and used in the right way, it has the potential to have a hugely positive impact on our lives. Data could be used for everything from improving healthcare, putting an end to traffic jams and to enable companies to better serve their clients. 

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