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Big potential for Big Data in the Massachusetts economy

Posted by Chad O'Connor  August 27, 2012 11:00 AM

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Every day, 2.5 exabytes of data are created by computers. If that doesn’t sound like much, a little perspective: one exabyte equals one quintillion (2.5×1018) bytes of data, or the content of 250 million DVDs. The figure is mind boggling and growing exponentially. Consider: 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years alone. There are many reasons it’s growing so fast –more sensors collecting data than ever before, the growth of social media, etc. – but all this data is creating enormous pressure on organizations to build new IT infrastructure to deal with it.

Interestingly, Massachusetts is playing a vital role in “Big Data.” We are leading the way on finding ways to help harness that data, make sense of it all, and put it to good use. In May Governor Patrick announced the Massachusetts Big Data Initiative to encourage further study in the field, and 12,000 people are employed in the sector in more than 100 companies here. Additionally, about $350 million in venture funding flowed last year into local Big Data startups. Seems like a recipe for success.

But in my view, we are falling short of what can be accomplished with Big Data.

Big Data means different things to different companies and different people. Until recently, none of it was even possible to contemplate unless you worked with supercomputers, so most companies assumed that complex analytics were out of reach. Over the past few years, the cost of the hardware and the structure of databases have advanced such that it is now entirely possible to perform very extensive and complex data analytics across almost infinite data sources for a relatively modest investment. This has opened up the potential for asking all kinds of questions that just were not possible before. And yet, we are still merely scratching the surface – or scratching our heads.

In order for magic to happen, Big Data firms need to adopt a different mindset and step into the shoes of the organizations they sell to. They need to not only be able to provide or collect the data, they need to make it relevant to potential enterprise clients and explain why it all matters. They need to help retailers and banks, for example, understand how bits and bytes can make them more responsive to customers or help them adapt to market conditions in real time.

This necessary shift – from being able to develop technology to being able to convince corporations of its value – is essential and especially difficult for entrepreneurs who may have been trained as engineers. The technology is critical, but it must translate into complete solutions to gain adoption.

We have a long way to go before most business people understand how to harness quintillions of bytes of data every day. But we can, and will, get there, and Massachusetts will help lead the way.

Matt Fates is a partner at Ascent Venture Partners in Boston. Over the last decade, he has focused on investments in data analytics and cloud business services. Ascent has backed more than 100 early-stage, enterprise IT companies since 1985.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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