Panel: Netflix, StubHub, IBM execs discuss value of big data

Executives from the likes of Netflix and StubHub discuss how using big data in the sports and entertainment industries can add value to their businesses.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Consumers and employees alike are expecting more personal experiences with every layer of technology these days, and there’s primarily one big source that can get that done: big data.

During a panel discussion at IBM’s offices in downtown San Francisco on Friday morning, executives from the entertainment and sports industries discussed how big data can be used to engage customers, develop products, and drive revenue.

But before any of that can be accomplished, corporate leaders need to have an in-depth and serious understanding of just what big data is rather than just knowing it as a hot trend in the tech world.

“What we mean by big is frankly enormous,” said Michael Karasick, vice president and a lab director at IBM Research,” also describing the concept as “it’s big if you can’t move it.”

One of the big challenges in big data is integrating information from multiple sources. But Karasick warned that addressing concerns surrounding big data involves more than just volume. It’s also means three other concerns: velocity, variety, and veracity.

Karasick reported that there is “a thousand exabytes of data on the planet anywhere” right now. IBM projects that figure will grow to approximately 9,000 to 10,000 exabytes of data by 2015, attributable to growth of enterprise data as well as social media and mobile devices.

That raises two important questions: Where do you put it all, and what do you do with it all?

Karasick said that IBM is witnessing a “completely new industry emerging” around managing data for specific industries.

Karasick used the example of “Moneyball” effect in using big data across industries, citing that understanding answering questions requires a lot of detailed analysis and nuance from the data being generated.

That kind of data ranges from private customer data to industry analytics. There is a lot of public data out there as well that can be integrated as contributing factors, which can really be as basic as something as the weather.

“Big data is the renaissance of the nerd,” Karasick quipped to some laughter from the audience, explaining that “these are people” who understand how to implement large amounts of data with an interesting skill for analytics.

Thus, big data is really being put to the test in the sports and entertainment industries.

Todd Yellin, vice president of Product Innovation at Netflix, explained the complicated process of how Netflix tries to come about offering suggestions in the Watch Instantly menu.

“One of the challenges of big data is we’ll have all these terabytes flowing at us, and we have to figure out which data to pick,” Yellin said.

Put most simply, Yellin said that means asking “Is it what you watched last night, or over the last year?” He continued that usually what you watched more recently deserves more weight. Then Netflix factors in other data, such as any ratings the user might have input on Netflix at any given time as well as the possible household demographic.

Panel moderator Michal Lev-Ram from Fortune Magazine commented that her most recent Netflix Watch Instantly suggestions were Gossip Girl, Dora the Explorer and Sons of Anarchy, describing that as “an eclectic” mix, adding jokingly that she didn’t even know that she wanted to watch any of those. (Lev-Ram clarified to the audience that she does have two young children at home, which would likely explain the Dora suggestion.)

StubHub’s chief marketing officer Ray Elias noted some of the security concerns around data analytics -- particularly just where data might be going.

Elias said that the online ticketing agency has over 65 partnerships, including major sports leagues and teams, with which StubHub does share data.

“We don’t make that readily available to non-partners,” Elias reassured, warning that there can be irrational data out there that might be misleading if not taken into context properly.

Yellin responded later that worries about data sharing among businesses (i.e. Facebook sharing info with advertisers, etc.) is actually starting to calm down a bit as society gets more used to social media, which in turn adds a more valuable aspect to any given service.

“People are a little freaked out right now,” Yellin remarked, but he said that you typically don’t hear as many complaints about this topic from younger people compared to older Internet users.

Elias posited that the ultimate opportunity presented by social data is discovery, which can help build the brand while also improving customer service.

However, he cautioned that, at least in StubHub’s case, that we’re still far off from understanding what people are talking about on social media and how that explains how they behave on StubHub.

“It’s going to require the industry coming together more,” Elias asserted.

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