Using common sense with Big Data


Opportunities usually come with challenges, but rarely are the two so linked as they are in Big Data.

Everything about this emerging topic is outsized. Even if you can comprehend what it means to store exabytes of data, it’s almost impossible to grasp the enormous potential to uncover trends and relationships through analysis.

The hurdles are also outsized. In addition to the difficulties in data handling and processing, there are dangers involving everything from misinterpretation to breaches of privacy.

There was a lot of talk about Big Data at the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., this month, and refreshingly, it focused on common sense messages that need to be shared with the food industry at large.

Charles Wheelan, author of “Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data,” urged retailers, suppliers and others in attendance to avoid getting blindsided by all the hype.

“The data enables us to see patterns we’d otherwise miss,” he said. However, that comes with a big caution: “Precision and accuracy aren’t the same thing. Statistics give us precise answers, but not necessarily accurate ones.”

Even meaningful statistical patterns tend to represent giant stereotypes that need to be carefully weighed, he warned.

“Your HR predictive algorithm would have told you to stay away from Steve Jobs,” he said, because of everything from dropping out of college to displaying hygiene issues. “So be careful what you miss when you stereotype with data.”


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The overriding point is that “common sense still matters, you cannot turn off your brain,” he emphasized.

Some companies appear to be following the sensible approach of not tackling more than they can handle in pursuing Big Data-related projects, as evidenced by comments from Midwinter panelists.

“Focus is the key to making this work,” said Keith Colbourn, SVP, Loyalty and Analytics, Safeway. “Pick something to work on that matters to your organization. Don’t get distracted. Put together the right resources to fulfill it.”

Another caution about Big Data is no less crucial. It’s possible to get so enamored with data that you forget the people-centric nature of the retail business.

Data is rational, people are not always rational,” said Dina Howell, worldwide CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi X, who was another Midwinter presenter. “You must connect with someone on the human level when you sell to them.”

Her point was that Big Data and “Big Emotion” need to go side by side.

Read more: Click here to see more FMI Midwinter coverage

I applaud all this smart thinking about Big Data, which should inform company strategies in 2014 and beyond.
And speaking of strategies, don’t miss the article on page 1 that relays 2014 plans and perspectives from key industry leaders, many of whom are figuring out how to improve performance despite a still sluggish economy. This may be a column about Big Data, but the ability of these executives to figure out how to overcome the economy’s challenges shows they are skilled in mastering another topic altogether: Big Picture.

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Julie Gallagher

Julie Gallagher’s delicious foray into coverage of the food industry was purely accidental. With a background in technology, she joined Supermarket News as associate editor of its Technology...

Liz Webber

Liz Webber is Senior Digital Manager at Supermarket News. She covers fresh foods for the magazine and creates multimedia, blog posts and other content for the website. She joined SN in August 2012.
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