February 2017 | Sangeeta Menon

India's tryst with Big Data

For someone who reminds you that “according to the Bible, Thomas was the most doubtful person”, Deep Thomas's belief in the power of Big Data is unwavering. “However, I have seen more doubtful people in my life because of my profession,” says the CEO of Tata Insights and Quants (Tata iQ), a Big Data company incubated as the Tata group’s analytics and data powerhouse.

Mr Thomas's entry into the world of Big Data was quite serendipitous. “There was no data analytics function in the 1990s, when I was with American Express. What we had was a strategy function, which supported marketing and other organisational priorities. One thing led to another, and I felt this was an area that interested me.” In an interview with Sangeeta Menon, the CEO of one of the youngest Tata companies speaks about the power and potential of data, and why it’s an exciting time to be in India.

Big Data is a big mystery for the uninformed. How would you demystify it for those who are not familiar with data and analytics?
Today, data is witnessing an astronomical growth through the digital revolution, numerous systems, machines, servers and the Internet of Things. As a result of consumerism and the ubiquity of connected smart devices and socially connected platforms, corporates now have the opportunity to understand their customers better by leveraging the data generated at various touchpoints.

Every single consumer interaction leads to the generation of varied types of data, for instance, audio or voice data when dialling a customer service centre or a call centre, text data when writing a review on TripAdvisor, transaction data when making an online purchase, and so forth. Consequently, the data being generated varies considerably in size, shape and form across marketing and communication channels and other customer touchpoints, and hence the term Big Data — because it is voluminous, big and of many types. This data is also generated at different speeds — some in a second, others in a week, or in months.

Today, every device in our daily lives and every equipment in a factory comes with smart sensors that provide us valuable information by the minute (in fact, every millisecond). Mining such high-velocity and high-volume data can transform businesses and open up newer ways of impacting our lives.

Big Data analytics helps you make sense of this data. It gives you the ability to store, process and mine this massive volume of data really fast. Organisations make better and smarter decisions through the insights and predictions generated from mining this data. And, regardless of the business and function that you are in, it is a strong ammunition and aid to making judicious decisions and enhancing profits.

Is India ready for the Big Data play or are we still at a nascent stage?
India, today, is one of the largest talent bases when it comes to data analytics, with over 100,000 people involved with it in some way. However, a majority of them service foreign companies, which look at India for its economies of scale. So, as big as the analytics talent base is, the irony is that a lot of it is not catering to Indian businesses. This is because of a number of reasons, especially the state of the data ecosystem here. Data continues to be a challenge in India, in terms of quality, coverage, consistency, as well as its understanding and awareness.

India clearly has a while to go in terms of the adoption of analytics compared with certain developed markets; but I think we are at the cusp of a transformation. Two or three years from now, as organisations compete on a global scale, Big Data will be a non-negotiable competency for every organisation — they will just not be in a position to compete without the power of data analytics. It is estimated that by 2025, the Indian analytics industry will be close to $16-18 billion in size. The government has done wonders in terms of the digital revolution and in democratising data; we have the largest millennial population; and we have 400 million internet subscribers and 1 billion cellphone subscribers, including 275 million smartphone users. What all of this means is that there is a nexus of forces connecting customers, and they can help organisations gather and mine data and use it for business benefit.

We are observing that, in the context of industries such as e-commerce and smart devices, the gap between the so-called advanced and emerging markets is almost non-existent today. It is my strong belief that other industries and business functions will not be left far behind.

How did the idea of Tata iQ come about? Please take us through the story of the company’s seeding and the challenge, if any, of getting it up and running.
As the Tata group looked at various strategic initiatives, one thing that came out loud and clear was the tremendous asset that the group has in terms of consumer connect, both B2B and B2C, across companies within and outside India. Tata iQ was conceptualised to do two things. One was to help Tata companies adopt analytics for smarter decision making across various functions. The other was to create one of the richest and most valuable databases on Indian consumers and institutions with holistic intelligence and attributes pertaining to their demographics, attitudes, behaviour, spending habits, passions, etc. This will generate actionable insights and more precise action to help every company gain higher market share.

During the last 18 months, we have built an entire Big Data ecosystem that now allows us to store, process and mine a massive variety of information in real time, in batches. We have assembled a great team of data scientists drawn from diverse sectors, global firms and top institutes. We have also successfully partnered with over 15 Tata companies in proof-of-concepts and pilots to solve a wide spectrum of business problems across sales and marketing, operations, risk, collections, digital, finance and HR functions. Here we deployed advanced analytics solutions such as geospatial, social media and web analytics, survival analysis, machine learning, natural language processing, stochastic gradient boosting and neural network.

Very recently, our team has been entrusted with launching a loyalty programme for the Tata group that aims to recognise a lifetime of relationships with consumers through exclusive benefits and privileges, and provide a key enabler to customer centricity within the Tata group. The programme also aims to offer a marketing collaboration platform to all participating Tata group companies, helping them with faster customer acquisition, reactivation and incremental sales.

Over the course of this exciting journey, we have built a strong client base across the group, wherein we are working very closely with five Tata companies as an extended analytics team, and are currently partnering with another ten on various strategic turnkey initiatives. However, we have miles to go before we can establish world-class data and analytics maturity across the Tata group and leverage the power of data to its fullest potential.

What challenges did you face in finding the right people for your team?
When I took up this role, I was not sure if people would be enthused about this opportunity, and whether anyone would be willing to join me in this journey. While I am fortunate to be connected with the analyst industry in India and have some equity here, I was sceptical about being able to attract people to this venture; but I am happy to say that I have been proved wrong. The power of the Tata brand is such a great attraction that leading data scientists have given up their roles in established companies to join Tata iQ. People from within the Tata group, millennials, and even established analytics professionals working with the likes of Accenture, FICO, GE, Dunnhumby, Target, American Express and others have joined us because what we offer is unique: the opportunity to work with varied businesses and solve diverse challenges in India.

Please tell us a bit about the technology backbone that powers Tata iQ’s business.
It took us four months to get that ready. The Big Data ecosystem requires you to have the ability to store massive amounts of data, to have the right tools to process all this data, to mine this data for powerful insights, and to create potent visualisations and analytics around it.

Today, we have the capacity to store about 250 terabytes of data, across 25 servers processing different forms of data at rapid speed. We have the right spectrum of tools and software for representing data, as well as the various actions needed for customer relationship management, improving equipment performance, operational effectiveness, risk mitigation, etc. Along with the technology backbone, we have the best minds in analytics to decode all this information and offer deep and actionable insights for our businesses.

Which are the industries that will benefit the most from Big Data?
I would say manufacturing would see a major impact in terms of application of analytics, for instance, in the prediction of equipment part failure, improving production quality, price elasticity, opportunity sizing or rapidly responding to market volatility and rising cost of raw materials through effective forecasting.

In consumer-facing sectors, financial services will definitely see a bigger impact, followed by lifestyle products, hospitality, retail, travel, healthcare and education. In revenue terms, data analytics will be far more beneficial where margins are thin. For example, in sectors like financial services and electronics that face margin pressures and have little to offer in terms of discounts and promotions, the power of analytics can be much more profound.

Does the Digital India movement make things more promising for the future of Big Data in the country?
Yes, it does. This is a terrific opportunity because it implies that the quantum of online transactions is only bound to increase further, which, in turn, will create more data. And despite the volume, variety and velocity of this data, the fact is that, thanks to technological breakthroughs, all this data can now be recorded, stored, organised and analysed for key business and consumer insights, enabling business leaders to make the right decisions at the right time.

Unlike a few years earlier, when a large proportion of transactions were primarily cash based, today we have the technological wherewithal to know if a consumer is a golf enthusiast, a movie buff or a pizza junkie, and so on.

Given the increasing focus on digitisation and cashless payments in India, combined with mechanisms like Aadhar (unique identification number for citizens) and PAN (permanent account number used for tax purposes), Big Data will enable us to stitch all this information together in meaningful ways. We can only get better from here. Even the government is helping us to drive analytics by building the perfect ecosystem. As the Indian economy matures, there will be a definite move towards adoption of data-driven decision-making across each and every sector, including the government.

What does it mean to be recognised as one of the 10 most influential analytics leaders in India for 2016?
It only implies added pressure and higher expectations from my stakeholders and sponsors to maximise the value from data and analytics for their firms and for the Tata group.

Tata iQ fact file

What is Tata iQ?
A Big Data analytics company that helps make sense of data collected from users or customers.

Why was it set up?
To help Tata companies adopt analytics for smarter decision making and to create one of the richest databases on Indian consumers and institutions.

What’s special about it?
Tata iQ has built a Big Data ecosystem that can deal with a massive variety of information. It is capable of storing about 250 terabytes of data across 25 servers.

Who uses it?
More than 15 Tata companies have partnered with Tata iQ to solve their business problems.

 

This article was first published in the January - March 2017 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here