Big Data and Digital Technology

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PERSPECTIVE  

In this article, Nsikan Essien enumerates the huge benefits of big data and digital technology and how Nigeria can take advantage of it

“In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish” – Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum

A quick glance at the statement by Klaus Schwab on the rapidity with which companies need to re-invent some aspect of themselves to survive might lead to the conclusion that agility is everything. In the context of implementing Big Data and other digital technologies, which I will refer to as Digital Technologies from this point, it brings us to an obvious corollary, summarised by Didier Bonnet, Senior VP at Capgemini as “the only wrong move when it comes to Digital Transformation is not to make any move at all.” However, when that viewpoint is completely adopted, without a recognition of the implicit nuance, it leads to snap decisions and technology fatigue, scenarios in which organisations can end up locked into bad architectural choices and unfavourable returns on their significant investment in technology. Survival therefore means a combination of agility, wise choices and patience (including the financial conditions favourable to patience). As the first of those is a recognised fact and the last is a well-worn path of discussion, I will focus on wise choices with Digital Technologies and what that could look like today. To get to that, we need to start a little further back.

In the aftermath of the Industrial age, a new kind of worker emerged, the Knowledge Worker (also referred to as the White-Collar Worker). The primary capital of these individuals was, and is, knowledge. Engineers, scientists, accountants, lawyers, administrative workers, and to a significant extent, managers and business owners. The increase in numbers of this new breed of workers grew with the level of automation of the once majority blue-collar work. By the late 90s, entire companies existed with most of their profit not generated by any manual labour or operation of heavy machinery. Combine this with the rapid development of computers and the growth of the internet and there were the makings of the current information age. I suppose that begs the question, what do most white-collar workers do?
Broadly speaking, I propose that white collar workers in an organisation do two things. The first is to use information to generate top-line growth by creating value where there was initially none, perhaps in the form of a new product, service or some modification of previous versions of a product or service. The second is to generate bottom-line growth by using information to optimise the existing operational capacity of the organisation given their existing customer base. In either case, and on either end of the spectrum of organisational size, information is used to influence decisions and actions at an executive level. Even industrial organisations have a sizable proportion of their workforce in offices, gathering, storing, transferring and processing information to aid the decisions and actions of their directors. To put it in the words of GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt, “industrial companies are in the information business whether they want to be or not.”
Enter Digital Technologies. At a fundamental level, all Digital Technologies are about information flow to solve problems. Digital Technologies enable us to gather, store, transfer and process information to either answer queries and/or to execute actions. In line with these functions, Digital Technologies can be thought of as being part of a very complex and interconnected network and belonging to one or more of three coarsely defined categories: Client-facing Devices, Specifications and Enterprise-facing Devices.
Client-facing Devices are tangible objects and systems that are the primary means of gathering data from customers and their surrounding environment. As these are the way in which information is introduced into the Digital Technology ecosystem, they tend to be the most numerous of the three groups. Examples of these include Smartphones, Personal Computers, Smart Sensors and Wearable Technologies. Specifications are intangible systems that describe relationships between various kinds of information and specify how information should be processed and transferred e.g. Software Development Languages, Protocols, Data Pipeline Services, Block-Chain technology, Big Data technology and Artificial Intelligence systems. Specifications can be thought of as the logic behind Client and Enterprise-facing Devices. Enterprise-facing Devices, are tangible objects and systems that are, as the name suggests, managed by enterprises and provide platforms on which storage, transfer and processing of information happens. Examples of these are servers, radio networks, cable networks, and cloud technologies. Now that we have eaten our greens, what does all of this mean to the wider-world and to Nigeria? I’ll answer that by looking specifically at a technology that currently seems to occupy the centre of the world’s stage, Big Data.

In the context of the framework outlined earlier, Big Data is a specification. It is a toolset containing various primitives whose main goal is to enable the processing of large volumes of data that come in a variety of forms, each with a different level of veracity and at significant velocities. A toolset with the ability to ingest enormous amounts of data and make sense of it to support better decision-making is a very powerful one. It is, after all, the role that hundreds of white-collar workers play together in organisations. Although this suggests that a percentage of jobs could be replaced by this technology, the maturity of the technology and our use of it means that is currently not the case. In enterprises where this technology is more mature, Big Data technology is used as an enabler for existing knowledge workers who currently do a lot of analysis, hence the terms Big Data & Analytics or Data Science. Rolls-Royce takes this approach as part of its Engine Health Monitoring Service, which forms an integral part of its “power-by-the-hour” service contracts. Despite being a very powerful toolset, Big Data is useless on its own. Without Client-facing devices, to gather information from multiple sources, and Enterprise-facing devices to transport, store and process information according to the Big Data specifications, the tool-set brings no benefits.

How could we apply this to Nigeria? As Nigeria is a country with a lot of challenges and Big Data technology is fundamentally about processing information to uncover insights into viable solutions, the options are limitless. For private sector enterprises, there are many ways of using this technology to understand areas of value creation for existing and new customers. Consequently, in the public sector, there are many ways to increase operational efficiency and value creation for its customers, the Nigerian public, using this technology. In either sector, the same series of steps would be needed to realise the vision.
The first is to understand which challenges are related to information flow. Simply put, it would only be applicable to use cases where the problems arise from an absence of understanding, as opposed to negligence. Second, to understand what parts, in relation to the previously defined categories, of the digital ecosystem we have and which we might need. Third is to consider, with the view of long-term maintenance and future expansion, what our sourcing strategy for the skills needed to operate this technology might be. It is worth noting that for technology that could easily become fundamental to an era, it is necessary to develop some level of internal expertise. Fourth would be testing these systems with human supervision on short-term pilot studies and finally rolling them out across a use case in its entirety.

Another step which should happen alongside the exploration of using Big Data and other digital technologies in Nigeria is to consider the effects on employment. By this I mean in cases where the technology suite to be employed necessitates the removal of a job, public and private enterprises need to consider the reskilling of members of their population. This is because although the implementation of these technologies could bring significant economic benefits, the consequent disruption could cause social problems that would be more difficult to address.
Given the vast opportunity space before us in Nigeria, how do we create an environment that fosters rapid growth and maturity in the implementation of Digital Technologies? The first would be to nurture the local enterprises that are already making progress by engaging them in business incubator and accelerator programs. For these to work successfully, we would need to attract international technology enterprises and engage them in strategic partnerships as mentors. The second would be to strengthen our tertiary institutions’ abilities in this field by investing in faculties that can advance digital technological frontiers as well as help faculties of other disciplines to understand areas of intersection. Success on this step would also mean partnering our tertiary institutions with local enterprises as an effective way of aligning our education with industry best practice. The last step would be to prioritise digital education in primary and secondary institutions by making it an essential part of the curriculum.
As the level of investment needed to create a conducive environment for Digital Technologies is quite high, it is therefore, naturally, the role of our government to do this. However, in the presence of a void, the responsibility will then fall to the able members of the private sector with the knowledge and resources to support this. In the absence of any shoulders to bear this responsibility, the consequence is very clear, we will pay through the nose for the soon-to-become essential products and services that Digital Technologies provide.

We live in the era of information and knowledge workers and consequently, all enterprises are dependent on Digital Technologies for their survival. This era is a fast-paced one and keeping up with the latest developments, like Big Data, in an effective way requires us to think about their application as part of a wider network of older and newer technologies designed to help us gather, store, transfer and process information. For Nigeria, the opportunities to apply these technologies are endless but harnessing them requires an investment into fostering the right environment and strategic partnerships with international organisations.
The future is a moving target, we can neither blink nor stand-still.

About the Author:
Nsikan Essien is a programme manager within the Civil Aerospace division at Rolls-Royce. He holds a Master’s Degree in Aerospace and Aerothermal Engineering from Cambridge University. Prior to his current role, he worked in Rolls-Royce’s digital business arm as a developer and an engineer and is currently working towards a qualification in Full Stack Web Development and Software Engineering. All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s.

Abstract:
Big Data and Digital Technologies are rapidly transforming how businesses, communities and individuals operate & coexist. Despite the rapid growth there is an overwhelming sense, on a global level, that an unprecedented step change approaches. One that could redefine our long-held notions about fundamental issues like employment, security and education. As the times change it is important for a nation like Nigeria not to be left behind. In order to take advantage of these technologies we need to understand: what they do, the potential benefits and risks they present, the tangible steps business can take to utilise them, the role our institutions and governments must play and finally, the future of the technologies themselves.