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US vs Asia vs Africa: Who will champion big data?

It seems the one guarantee when it comes to technology is that it is constantly moving. The organisations or countries on top of the technology leadership board are always changing too. Where the US used to be the leader in innovation, it has been overcome by countries like China, Japan and India. With the rise of big data, all sectors and geographic regions seem to be jumping into the fray, so they can emerge a step ahead of the rest. The question presented, then, is who will win the big data race and emerge champion, at least for a while?

Will Asia still prevail?

Needless to say, Asia has the technological and economic capacity to make the switch to big data, but having an infrastructure in place also comes with the disadvantage of being comfortable with where you are already at. In addition, Asia faces the challenge of figuring out how to merge its current data with the emerging data sources, while facing the same lack of professionals with expertise in this area. Finally, Asia also faces the unique challenge of multi-linguality, with many more languages and dialects spoken there than in the US or Africa. When you are trying to extract information from unstructured conversations, this can become a real issue.

Despite the complications, Asia is not ignoring the possibilities big data represents. Telecoms, banks and government agencies, in particular, have jumped into the arena and other industries are starting to explore it as well. Universities are also starting to talk about how to include big data in their curriculum, so early adopters are squarely keeping Asian countries in the big data contest. The question is, how long it will take the majority to make the shift?

An economic boon for Africa?

To risk mimicking a Miss America speech, some have touted big data as the future for children in Africa. Expertise in the realm of big data services is in relatively short supply all over the world, and while that pool of expertise may slowly grow, it is not growing quickly enough to meet the current demand for implementing big data systems and analytics. In fact, big data is expected to create more than 4.4 million jobs globally by 2015, but only a third of those jobs will be filled. Africa, on the other hand, has an emerging technology market with a young, ambitious population that is quickly taking over the data field while we still continue to debate its merits.

In Africa, insurance companies use big data to sort out false claims, and the country's huge mobile phone industry is sure to create a huge opportunity for using big data in location based marketing and for the mobile carriers themselves looking to stem the number of customers dropping their services.

A transformation for non-profits?

The non-profit sector isn't generally the first we think of when it comes to new technology, since it's usually limited on resources and has donors who are picky about how their money is spent. However, big data could serve as a highly valuable, evaluative tool to see if a non-profit's efforts are having the desired positive impact in the long-term and if there are areas that can be improved upon.

For example, Nurse-Family Partnerships, a non-profit that pairs poor mothers with nurses for home visits, meticulously documents its work collecting data on 2,000 different variables for each family. With the data, the organisation is able to adapt to changing needs, such as a spike in malnutrition, to provide the education and services that will be most helpful. The UN has also got into the data arena by analysing data on the Internet for signs of trouble in developing countries.

Needless to say, the title of big data champion is still up for grabs, and there are plenty of industries in the US exploring its possibilities as well. It is an exciting time to see how innovation may be once again changing our world, but it is not entirely clear yet what all of those changes will be. Have you jumped into the big data arena yet? Where do you perceive big data taking us?

Gil Allouche is the vice president of marketing at Qubole. Gil began his marketing career as a product strategist at SAP while earning his MBA at Babson College and is a former software engineer.