The Mistakes Companies Make With Big Data

Big data has launched a boom industry in data analytics and science. To find out where this revolution is headed and how companies can get a competitive advantage, The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein spoke with Hilary Mason, chief executive and founder of Fast Forward Labs and former chief scientist at Bitly, and Andreas Weigend, director of the Social Data Lab and former chief scientist at Inc. Here are edited excerpts of the discussion.

MS. BLUMENSTEIN: What are some of the biggest misunderstandings about data?

MS. MASON: Often people think that individual data is the most valuable thing they can collect. But it’s not useful to know what I am doing or where I am, unless you’re particularly interested in me, which is weird. But it is very useful to know what a population of people are doing.

On the implementation side, one of the common mistakes is to think of their data as a liability, as something that can only go wrong. It leads to a defensive attitude.

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MS. BLUMENSTEIN: There’s a lot of talk of transparency, that the CIO role has shifted from protecting data to sharing it. Andreas, you had a good example, a top executive.

MR. WEIGEND: He opened up all of his inbox and outbox for anybody within the [company] domain.

Two things happened. From one day to the next, all the bickering stopped. And those people he was thinking, “How do I get rid of them?” They left.

And people were more interested in his outbox than his inbox.

MS. MASON: The big tech companies do this well. They have the infrastructure in place to collect and count whatever they like in that data, and that’s generally available widely. But I’m more interested in the companies you would not think about.

We work with an insurance company that has put a ton of time and energy into taking information about customers. It used to be that if you wanted to do something with the data and you were not on the data team, you had to fill out a paper form and send it to somebody. A week later, they might send you a report that would also be on paper.;

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