Monday, 19 August 2013

This Towns Data’s Not Big Enough For The Both Of Us

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Wow, another month when I wished I had £50 in my pension for anyone using a phrase. This months seemed to be ‘Big Data’.

I read 3 pages in Housing Tetchnology magazine about it and had countless people ask me about it this last month. It’s the next cloud computing, I tell you. Before your IT team/director/Chief Boffiin persuades you to part with budget, read this.

Lots of talk about housing organisations pooling resources for shared insights and data-led innovation. This is the new nirvana (Kurt Cobain turn in your grave mate), or is it? Much talk of big data, but what of big information? A subtle difference, but a very big one. I even noticed HACT jumping on the bandwagon. Now I have nothing against housing providers sharing data to generate insights. The practicalities are something else.
How many times have you generated graphs from data and presented them at a meeting and had a manager say, “What’s caused that peak in demand/satisfaction/dissatisfaction”? You have distilled the data from (big) transactional data, you are just the messenger. Shouldn’t that manager know? Otherwise why pay he/she their humungous salary? Big information comes from understanding big data.

Suppliers out there are sniffing an opportunity, it’s the same old data, buy our solutions for a different reason. Yesterdays data warehouse is today’s big data solution. A bit like hosting became cloud. Are these solutions really tapping into your ‘unstructured’ and ‘multi-structured’ data, like the kind under aspires of your housing management system?

Insights are the target outcomes. That might be why only over 40’s are on your tenant participation panels or 70% of your ASB cases are logged by the under 40’s. A switched on staff member can tell you why, or £75K of software solution can have a go at providing a result for you.

I had some direct experience of big data last year, when I did some work for a very successful NW England based retailer. One that you may well have purchased from, though one of its web guises, without even pondering who owns it. I had a raw big data feed every season 800MB in zipped size to summarise into a big information insight. The insight was 12 pages long, while the raw data needed a newly purchased 8 core i7 processor to crunch it, this way and that.

Most people who know me remember my time some years at Littlewoods and I had to dig out my knowledge of SKUs and such to make sense of 11 retailer ranges of products. It was a while I grant you, but in the dusty grey matter, it was in there somewhere. The only time in my life I was knee deep in female underwear and outerwear, but I learnt a lot about how different how everyone’s data is. Even in the retail world, everyone’s products, colours, sizes, styles are so different. Why can a bra be a 36-C, 36C, 36Med, 36 Medium, 36 Med-C? Can’t you folks call it the same thing? It’s not a lot to ask, is it?

Now in UK housing we do have some standardisation don’t we? We have some standard returns in England, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. In all of these places we have city, urban and rural areas. Why we cannot have a unified set of returns has baffled me since the mid 90’s when I got involved in housing. We have more similarities than differences. Celebrate those brothers and sisters.

Still, nowhere as standard as we can take data from any RSL, ALMO or housing group and aggregate it together. Housing Management Suppliers despair when people talk about ‘standard reports’. Even HouseMark ones are not easily aggregated together. Getting back to my retail experience, comparison and cross-referencing was most of the job, and not an exact science at that.

A chat and sharing an excellent pork pie (with brown sauce) this week with a super lady, who I must really see more often, revealed some aspects of data, big and small that many organisations grapple with. Within organisations, the concept of where big data & summarised data (if I may term it that) is often so badly understood.

I have seen organisations where in the nominal ledger/chart of accounts, there is virtually a cost centre for each asset. As can be guessed I generally ask “Why are you doing that you muppet?”. It could be ignorance or mis-understanding. Big data in this context belongs in the feeder systems, not in the financial ledgers. Dawn (I must name her as she insisted I should), described one enquiry she had had from an insurance team, asking for more detail from ledgers. Quite rightly the analogy she used was that if the finance system held the cost of someone’s total shopping, the insurance application would contain the shopping list of items that was purchased.

Processes are continually being pushed downstream these days too. Quite rightly, the days of the typing pool are pretty much behind us. Another area that Dawn mentioned to me was that e-biz ordering and requisitioning, obviously filter down to the orderers, who often ask, isn’t this a finance function? Here again, big(ger) data belongs with the people ordering it, not the finance team. After all, do you get your bank to do your shopping, or do you buy the individual items and your bank bills you the tab? Dawn dear, where have you been all my life?

As a person who loves ‘One version of the truth’ and data to back up decisions and show trends, I fear a housing rush into ‘Big Data’ may take us into a cul-de-sac. Much investment may be made, but often the expertise of housing practitioners on the ground, might well provide better insight than some of our projects to mine ‘Big Data’. I am passionate about UK social housing, I cannot hide that. Building communities, using our assets better, supporting our neighbourhoods, big data, another avenue, but not a silver bullet. Discuss.

You can link with me on LinkedIn here - It would be great to connect !

Read on to: Drones for housing. Really? well yes actually... 

Sparks - This Towns Datas Not Big Enough For The Both Of US.

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting 07854-655009

PS As usual, if there are subjects you might like me to tackle on this blog, please get in touch and let me know!

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