The data toolkit: What small and medium-sized firms need to know

BIG DATA has moved beyond the technology hype cycle, and is now a cornerstone of digital economies across the world. As we approach 30 per cent of humanity connected to the web, big data has become relevant to companies of all sizes.

Although we have a large number of SMEs in the UK relative to the number of enterprises, only a small proportion are companies that have looked at the opportunities offered by big data. Take Tech City. Of more than 3,000 companies, fewer than 1,200 are focused on technology products and services. While it is true that our digital companies run on some big data technologies, it is rare to find one that operates such technologies on the premises. Almost all are cloud-only. Leveraging big data itself is largely still a niche landscape. That said, there are important considerations to address if you are a cloud-only company.

First: cost. Cloud service providers don’t provide free services – if you don’t pay, you are the product. It is advisable to pay for all the cloud services your business runs on. Why? As a client of a cloud provider, you are entitled to a level of service and support when things go wrong. Many companies could quickly go out of business if they were off-air for only a few days. Additionally, the terms of service from your cloud provider will specify what the cloud company can do with your data, which includes, of course, your customers’ data. As individuals, we may click through on an “I agree” button. But as companies, we need to understand what we have agreed another company can do with our client data.

Secondly: security. Be aware of the data you gather or hold. If you are using it either internally or for client work, ensure you have understood any repurposing of that data for anything other than the reasons it was originally created or collected. There are complex privacy and data protection issues which can be attributed to an individual. It is important to declare this as part of the terms and conditions of your services or products, and state how you manage data.

In our increasingly connected world, every organisation can maximise their business opportunities by using big data related to their brand, industry, sector and geography. Big data will allow a company to understand its digital footprint across the web, and can amplify its message to an audience you haven’t yet met by telling stories using data.

But where would you start? How would you do it, and what tools would you need? This is a discovery process which starts by loading the data you want to understand onto a cloud service. First, you will need to set up a development environment on a cloud provider, such as Rackspace or Amazon Web Service. Next, you will need a technology stack. Then, you need to acquire the basic skills of a data analyst to tell the story of your data.

The key is to acquire a toolkit of open source tools. There are many books and resources available to get you through this process. Search out a group of people whose work you admire to inspire you, and start your journey.

Jacqui Taylor is chief executive and founder at FlyingBinary. @jacquitaylorfb