Digital information proliferates like so much Japanese knotweed, says Martin Cowen – the trick is knowing how to harness it
BIG DATA IS THIS YEAR’S buzzword. Like many buzzwords, its precise meaning is unclear and there’s the nagging suspicion that those shouting the loudest are the ones with the most to gain. It is so important that sometimes it is capped-up as ‘Big Data’, turning it into a proper rather than common noun.
If you search ‘big data definition’ on Google, you get 85 million results, returned in 0.17 seconds. That in itself is an indication of the challenges facing the corporate travel world in this new age – it is astounding that 85 million data sets can be accessed in less than one-fifth of one second. But how can you sift through this, find out what is relevant for your needs and then execute a course of action using this new-found intelligence?
AN ABUNDANCE OF INFO
For corporate travel agents and buyers, the need to action and execute on data is compelling. TMCs and buyers now have access to significantly more data than ever before, so the buyer or TMC should know everything needed to be known about mandating, compliance, people tracking, supplier negotiations, return on investment of specific trips, expense trends et al. If only it were that simple.
I talked to a senior travel buyer at a FTSE-100 business, who was keen to nail down a definition of big data. In a reversal of the usual interview process, she demanded that I offered my definition first. I referred to a previous conversation with Robert Drotar, travel and transportation portfolio director at HP (formerly Hewlett-Packard) Enterprise Services. The buyer agreed with Drotar’s suggestion that data becomes ‘big data’ at the time when the existing analytic tools and practices are unable to cope with the amount of data they’re expected to handle.
My travel buyer says: “Big data is not a term we use internally, at least not in the travel department.” She adds that while big data might be an interesting concept, her business is still working out the best way to use the data it already has – a common refrain when talking to people on the frontline of data use.
In some case, data still needs to be shared between various departments, leaving analysis some way off. “In terms of the data we get from the TMC, the only actionable steps we are able to take are in terms of sourcing our supply,” she says. “So we know how many nights we bought with a particular chain and can use that when negotiating.” She suggests that maybe the TMCs need to up their big data game – quickly adding that this isn’t a direct criticism of her TMC.
“There might also be a need for TMCs and buyers to change the way they work, for data sharing to become a part of the commercial set-up,” she says. “TMCs have a key role to play in the analysis and consolidation of the data they generate, but not all of the travel spend is going through the TMC.”
Travel and expense management business Concur takes a slightly different stance on what big data means in today’s corporate travel environment. Concur vice-president Pierre-Emmanuel Tetaz says: “In our experience, it’s less about starting with the technology problem – ‘how do we leverage big data?’ – and more about focusing on the human issue – ‘how can I best support my employees on the road, while retaining visibility and control of spending?’ We think of big data as being employee specific, as it has to be relevant to every traveller – we look at big data as ‘my data’.”
Big data experts are popping up everywhere. Recruitment agencies are promoting data scientists as the next big thing. Last year it was social media experts; before that every business needed a carbon emissions expert. Openjaw Technologies is a Dublin-based travel specialist whose president, John McQuillan, is also a data and analytics expert. Even he admits that “the whole idea of big data has been hijacked by the marketing people in order to give data a value in itself. But it’s what you can do with it that gives the value, not the data in isolation.”
At a recent airline distribution conference in London, Ravi Simhambhatla, chief technology officer for Aer Lingus, told the audience: “Google and Facebook know big data – anyone else who says they do is bluffing.” McQuillan suggests that corporate buyers and TMCs could take inspiration from Google. “One great example of what can happen when you integrate internal and external data is preventing disease [and] saving lives,” he says, referring to the way in which Google correlates search terms with other data to predict pandemics. Google has produced a free-to-access white paper on the subject, called Detecting influenza epidemics using search engine query data.
Another way, he suggested, that corporate buyers and TMCs could get a taste of what can be done with data is by having a look at Google Big Query. There is a small cost for access, but essentially the tool allows businesses to mine internal data using Google tools.
Saving money and driving compliance may pale in comparison with preventing pandemics, but the principle is the same. “Big data is all about finding business-critical intelligence by looking at the relevant internal data, and cross-referencing it with historical or external data,” says McQuillan.
Concur notes that detailed analysis of expenses can help with savings. “Every business has hundreds of areas they can potentially make savings – from negotiating a better deal with an airline or hotel based on your employees’ loyalty to making sure all of your staff use the same sandwich shop with a company discount,” Tetaz explains. “Big data from expense reports is a highly effective way of spotting potential opportunities to streamline costs.”
The combination of expenses and big data is something my FTSE-100 travel buyer feels should be addressed. “If the spend goes through the corporate credit card, there is visibility, although even that is limited,” she suggests. “But if the traveller uses his personal card or cash, analysis of the spend is dependent on the expense claim. We try to look at it manually, but that’s quite labour intensive.”
Operator error or indifference could be the black hole at the heart of big data. Concur recently reported that over one third of UK sales people do not keep a complete record of the impact of their business trips. If employees don’t provide the information asked, there is no data to analyse. Big data can have another role – to help businesses track and identify non-compliant employees.
This is something the buyer hints at as well. “It should be possible to see which of our travellers are not using the eligible flights – and communicate with them appropriately,” she says.
REINING IN SPEND
Arguments over compliance have plagued the corporate travel sector for a number of years, and one of the possible benefits of big data is that maverick travellers will be easily identifiable.
Some uses of big data cross over into Big Brother territory – as in Orwell’s all-seeing character rather than the TV show – but if used appropriately, analysis of data can bring benefits to the business travel buyer. If Google can use big data to prevent pandemics, then surely buyers and TMCs should be able to rein in unnecessary spending and out-of-policy spend.
* For a TMC view on big data - read our interview with Carlson Wagonlit's Catalin Ciobanu