With phones now being used as computers the world over, the exponential amount of data going across mobile networks is mind numbing.
It's growing to a magnitude that could paralyze businesses if not whipped into some semblance of control, or as the mobile industry would hope, monetized in some way.
Here are a few stats the GSMA, the mobile operators' trade group, threw around its marquee Mobile World Congress event last week:
- There are 3.2 billion mobile subscribers today, meaning nearly half of the world's population relies on mobile communications.
- Another expected 700 million subscribers will join by 2017, and the 4 billion-subscriber milestone will be reached in 2018.
- At the end of 2012, there were 6.8 billion mobile connections worldwide. That number could reach 9.7 billion by the end of 2017.
- Mobile broadband accounted for 1.6 billion of these total connections last year, and could increase to 5.1 billion in 2017.
- Mobile broadband's proliferation is causing a data traffic explosion: In 2012, 0.9 exabytes of data crossed mobile networks every month. (A side note about this amount in case you've never heard of an exabyte, according to the What's a Byte website: An exabyte is approximately 1,000 petabytes, or said a couple other ways, is 1 quintillion bytes or 1 billion gigabytes.)
- Data traffic is predicted to increase by 66 percent to 11.2 exabytes per month in 2017. (Another bizarre way to correlate that, again via What's A Byte -- five exabytes is thought to be equal to all of the words ever spoken by mankind. So theoretically, in a few years we will be transmitting data multitudes higher than we've ever spoken.
Spinning big-data's money pot
So, given all this data we're moving around, not surprisingly, there was a panel session on just this topic at MWC.
Of course, though, there was a spin. It was called "Big Data: Big Questions, Big Value?" and one of the main talking points centered on how the mobile industry can make money from big-data challenges, more specifically worded like this in the GSMA's conference agenda:
The power of modern processors and smart analytical tools has put many billions of dollars of potential value into the mobile ecosystem, but this is not just a technical question for the guys in business analytics. It is one that will affect how whole organisations, whether traditionally data-driven or not, comprehend and deliver internal processes and external services... This session will consider the tangible opportunities in mobile big data and will ask how we can make the most of them.
Sure, there are challenges, like security and privacy, but many people gathered around to hear how they could convert data (and access to all the "useful" identity and location data embedded within "normal" data) into profit margins.
Making the case for cognitive computing
One of the leading edge ideas came from IBM's Paul Bloom, the CTO for telecom research and the guy responsible for applying the latest IBM technologies and research from its nine laboratories to emerging telecommunication solutions. His thought process lead to what he called the dawn of cognitive computing and IBM's latest innovation, Watson.
Said Bloom in a personal interview:
Right now there is no real-time way to transform all this data into information. A new era of cognitive computing is coming to the marketplace soon. Cognitive computing is a cross between supercomputing, nanotechnology and neuroscience. Computers will mimic our five senses. They will be able to learn and adapt.
While Watson is being piloted in healthcare and financial services organizations, big-data management also could fall well within the system's ask-decide-discover core cognitive computing ability, he added. If Watson addresses big-data four dimensions -- volume, velocity, variety, and veracity, the thinking is that companies would have better, more accurate information that could make them more agile in responding to business changes, help them gauge consumer sentiment... the list goes on and on.
Getting the basics right first
If IBM's solution is a bit too science fiction for you, other panelists had more traditional ideas for ways to manage and use the flood of data rushing in.
One idea is to use some of the best-practices that have been applied to recent crisis situations. For instance, the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti gave the mobile industry, aid groups, and companies valuable insights because of the 1.9 million SIM cards that were used by locals as part of the disaster relief effort, said Flowmnder's co-founder Dr. Linus Bengtsson. Bengtsson has also done research on public health applications of information technology at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Reports generated by these SIM cards gave relief workers a good idea of how people were moving around the country, as well as ways to track a cholera outbreak 10 months after the earthquake.
An even more simple startling point can't be ignored either: Get your whole value chain ready to access and analyze the data flowing back and forth.
In a panel discussion at Mobile World Conference 2013, Khalifa Al Shamsi, Etisalat's chief digital services officer, said:
The technology solution is usually the easy part to overcome. There are cheaper memory and technology solutions, and the analytics tools are also available. The harder part is getting the business solution in place. Your company is not the only one in the value chain. You have to do a lot of collaboration with other leaders and industry players. You have to prepare the whole ecosystem for this new business model.
That makes sense. But, is your company doing any of this? Is it drowning in data or enjoying the spoils that come with creating advantages?