Tales from the big data front line: Are skills and size really holding companies back?

Italian big data users are out there - but they tend to be whales, not minnows.
Written by Federico Guerrini, Contributor

Italian companies are starting to embrace big data - analyzing vast amounts of data produced at speed by numerous sources - in order to boost their revenues and better understand their customers. But there's still a long way to go before the approach becomes mainstream.

"In Italy, the term big data has become widespread since about two years," Paolo Pasini, a professor at Bocconi University School of Management, told ZDNet. "There have been many tests and pilot programs but few real projects."

That's not to say, however, that things aren't moving in the right direction. It's mainly big multinationals that are leading the way - according to a recent report by Bocconi - as such companies have the human and financial resources to devote to getting the best from big data systems. It's not by chance that the case studies used in the report mostly concern large insurance firms, multi-utilities companies that provide smart grid products, and telecoms carriers.

The latter are perhaps the best placed when it comes to exploiting big data, as they have accumulated a great deal of experience in managing digital information, from phone call records to data posted on social media or customers' profiles.

Telecom Italia, for instance, is studying how to make the most of big data in its Semantics and Knowledge Innovation Lab (SKIL) in Trento, one of a number of research centres that the company has created all over Italy in joint collaboration with local universities. "The choice in this case fell to Trento: it's home both to the university and the Bruno Keller Foundation, two institutions that are well-known for their studies on data," the lab's director Fabrizio Antonelli told ZDNet.

There are two main areas in which Telecom Italia researchers believe big data analysis could prove useful: customer relationship management and the development of new revenue models.

"The most important element," Antonelli explains, "is the call data record, or CDR, that is generated every time the user performs an action on the phone, like starting or closing a call, sending an SMS, and so on." CDRs are then anonimized - stripped of any information that could lead to identify the user's name. Only the geolocation data, the user's position as estimated by Telecom's cell towers, is kept.

"Geolocation data, anonimized and aggregated, allows us to study the patterns of mobility of people across a certain territory. These patterns, cross-referenced with other information, like those provided by the National Institute of Statistics can then be used to perform more sophisticated analysis and offer services to our customers. We're able, for instance, to tell a business which is the best spot in town to open a new store, or suggest a municipality where to place a new bus stop."

Together with the Polytechnic of Milan, SKIL has also developed CitySensing, a platform for managing large events in urban areas based on social media and mobile network big data streams.

The platform was tested in September during Design Week in Milan when, mixing data from mobile phones and social media, it was used to help organizers understand (and showcase) the most visited events, and what was the prevailing 'sentiment' at the event, meaning what people thought of the event.

Another Italian company making use of data to profile customers is Amplifon, a hearing aid company which operates in 22 countries. "We collect data through our 7,500 points of sale, through social media, internet queries, surveys, and call centers. For us, the most important data isn't about percentage hearing loss. Rather, we're interested in the customer's lifestyle and attitude towards their problem," the company's chief marketing executive Andrea Facchini said. Thanks to a specific algorithm, customers are therefore segmented on the basis of that information which, in turn, is used to offer the most appropriate product.

Other analytics users include Acea, one of the most important Italian public utilities, which uses big data systems to monitor energy distribution and predict possible anomalies in its 'smart grid' pilot project; and Moby Lines, a maritime transport company operating to and from the islands of the Upper Tirrenian Sea, which analyzes customers' data to improve booking conversion rates on its websites.

Size is one factor that holds back many Italian companies when it comes to jumping on the big data bandwagon, while a shortage of skilled staff is another. Although the 'data scientist' is expected to become one of the most sought after workers in the coming years, there are still few schools in Italy that are training students to do such jobs - but that's changing.

The University of Pisa has introduced a postgraduate course in big data analytics and social mining, while the Cuoa Foundation, in Vicenza, is proposing a similar program for managers. The University of Tor Vergata, in Rome, meanwhile has recently set up a big data lab that will offer training, research, and consultancy services to firms interested in bridging this new digital divide.

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