Big Debate panelist Q&A profile: IBM

In the leadup to ZDNet Asia's Big Debate on Nov. 28, we put the spotlight on panelist Janet Ang, managing director of IBM Singapore.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

SINGAPORE--There has been a lot of hype about big data, but are companies benefiting from it yet? What are the key challenges Singapore businesses face in capturing relevant data and extracting intelligence from it?

Janet Ang, IBM
Janet Ang, IBM Singapore

How can technology help resolve some of these challenges, and what is the government's role in helping Singapore companies tap data for innovation? These, among others, are just some of the big data questions panelists will be discussing at ZDNet Asia's Big Debate to be held this week on Nov. 28 at the Pan Pacific Hotel.

Among them is panelist Janet Ang, managing director of IBM Singapore, who oversees the vendor's local operations including its product and services division. Before her appointment as head of the Singapore office in July 2011, Ang held various senior posts at Big Blue including vice president of infrastructure technology services at IBM Great China Group, where she was based in Beijing.

She was also previously head of Lenovo's global desktop business unit and led the integration with IBM's former desktop unit.

The IBMer serves on several committees including the Singapore Chamber of Commerce in China, Singapore Computer Society as well as the Singapore chapter of the International Women's Forum.

As a leadup to the panel discussion, we profile Ang in a Q&A session here to get some of her initial thoughts on big data. Also catch our Q&A profiles of other panelists in the big debate:

Q: Why should Singapore care about big data? And why should Singapore businesses and the general population care about it?
Ang: Imagine this--90 percent of data in the world today was created in the last two years alone. The volume, velocity, and complexity of data are only going to increase. The rise of big data, in conjunction with high-performance computing, can yield major advances for governments as well as businesses.

At the same time that big data creates a level playing field for all, it can also become a competitive differentiator. As a country with no natural resources, Singapore has traditionally derived its value and relevance for the global economy by being an economic hub for information. Leveraging these data through analytics, especially advanced and predictive, is now more relevant than ever for Singapore.

It is important to remember, at the end of it, big data is not simply about the data itself. It is also about smarter analytics on data that will drive outcomes to help us be more relevant to our customers, and citizens, and differentiate for competitive advantage.

And why would Singaporeans not care about the outcomes of big data? It makes our life easier--in a way defined by them. Big data empowers consumers and citizens through more choices and the ability to make better informed decisions.

Big data provides a burning platform, but if we do not engage it actively, we will get disintermediated. So we have to act now and be future-ready; do not lose the advantage we currently have.

In your view, what is the most fascinating potential application of big data technology in Singapore? For instance, what social/business problem can it best resolve, or how can it best improve our daily life?
Cities, Singapore included, compete globally to attract both citizens and businesses. A city's attractiveness is directly related to its ability to offer services that encourage growth, build economic value, and create competitive differentiation, while integrating city systems for improved quality and efficiency, and creating easy-to-use services which result in positive citizen experiences.

Singapore, with extremely high demands placed on its urban infrastructure, makes an excellent "living lab" for urban solutions. To be future-ready, opportunities exist for cities to further integrate services currently offered by agencies in silos, and unleash the value of data into actionable insights.

Additionally, an environment for improved engagement and collaboration--between cities, businesses and citizens--needs to be created by leveraging platforms like mobile and social networks.

Today, Singapore is already working with partners like IBM to leverage technology to bring to life the smarter and sustainable cities vision. For example, the National Environment Agency (NEA) and IBM are collaborating to develop advanced modeling and predictive capabilities to address key environmental concerns in Singapore, such as air quality, extreme weather events, dengue outbreaks, and food poisoning incidents. The objective is to enhance NEA's operations to better serve the public.

By leveraging IBM's advanced analytics capabilities, NEA will begin to use data more intelligently for its operations and make sense of complex data that can be translated into useful information for the public.

What is the biggest challenge related to big data that technology available today cannot help resolve? And what needs to happen to address this?
While the term "big data" is pervasive, it still engenders confusion.

Whether talking about the huge volumes of data, social media, real-time data or analytics, much of the confusion about big data begins with the definition itself. In a recent report on big data by IBM and the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, it was revealed that most big data initiatives currently being deployed by organizations--both private and public--are aimed at improving the customer experience. Yet, despite the strong focus on the customer, less than half of the organizations engaged in active big data initiatives are currently collecting and analyzing external sources of data, like social media.

One reason is many organizations are struggling to address and manage the uncertainty inherent within certain types of data, such as the weather, economy or sentiments and truthfulness of people expressed on social networks.

Respondents questioned their ability to trust comments, reviews, tweets, and other forms of freely offered opinions online, especially when the source is unidentified or unconfirmed.

While uncertain, social media data still contains valuable information. Organizations need to embrace and manage data uncertainty and determine how to use it to their advantage.

The skills gap is another reason social media and other external data sources is underutilized. Having the advanced capabilities required to analyze unstructured data, which includes geospatial data, voice, images and video as well as streaming data, remains a major challenge for most organizations. Less than 25 percent of respondents say they have the required capabilities to analyze highly unstructured data, and this is a major inhibitor to getting the most value from big data.

The challenges are currently beyond that of technology, as is evidenced by the work IBM is already doing with early adopters around the world through over 2,000 Smarter Planet initiatives to harness big data and advanced/predictive analytics. That said, a lot of research and development is still ongoing--and needed--to further refine big data technology.

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