The worldwide Big Data Week kicks off today with gatherings in the U.K., U.S., Germany, Finland and Australia. As part of their global focus, Big Data Week founder/organizer Stewart Townsend (@stewarttownsend) of DataSift, and Carlos Somohano (@ds_ldn), founder of the Data Science London community and the Data Science Hackathon, have been tracking big data in Europe. This is an area that we’re exploring here at Radar and through October’s Strata Conference in London, so I asked Townsend and Somohano to share their perspectives on the European data scene. They combined their thoughts in the following Q&A.
Are the U.S. and Europe at similar stages in big data growth, adoption and application?
Townsend and Somohano: Based on our experience across industry verticals and markets in Europe, we believe the U.S. is leading the way in adopting so called “big data.” The U.K. is perhaps the European leader, where the level of adoption is picking up quite quickly, although still lagging behind the U.S.
In Germany, surprisingly, many organizations are not adopting big data as quickly as in the U.S. and U.K. markets. In some southern European markets, big data is still quite a new concept. Practically speaking, it’s not on the radar there yet.
Part of our organizational mission at Big Data Week is to promote big data across the whole European ecosystem and act as messengers of the benefits of adopting big data early.
What are the key differences between big data in the U.S. and Europe?
Townsend and Somohano: Many large organizations in Europe are still in the early stages of the adoption cycle. This is perhaps due to the level of confusion around aspects like terminology (i.e. what do we mean by “big data”?) and the acute lack of skills around “new” big data technologies.
Today, most of the new developments and technologies around big data come from the U.S., and this presents somewhat of a challenge for some European organizations as they try to keep up with the rapid level of change. Perhaps the speed of both the decision-making cycle and the organizational change in most European companies is a bit slower than in the U.S. counterparts, and this may be reflected in the adoption of big data. We also see that the concept of data science and the role of the data scientist is well adopted in many U.S. companies, and not so much in Europe.
Where is Europe excelling with big data?
Townsend and Somohano: The financial services sector — particularly investment banking and trading in London — is one of the early adopters of big data. In this sector, both the experience and expertise in big data is on par with big data leaders in the U.S. Equally, the level of investment in big data in this sector — despite the economic downturn — is healthy, with a positive outlook.
Technology startups are also becoming European leaders in big data, primarily around London, and to a lesser degree in Berlin. There is a relatively large number of startups that are not only adopting but developing new business models and value from big data in social media and business-to-consumer services.
Finally, some verticals like oil and gas, utilities, and manufacturing are increasingly adopting big data in areas like sensor data, telemetry, and operational data streams. Our research indicates that retail is perhaps a late adopter.
The U.K. government has a number of robust open data initiatives. How are those shaping the big data space?
Townsend and Somohano: Quite notably, the U.K. government is becoming one of the leaders in open data, although perhaps not so in big data. This is perhaps due to the fact that the key drivers of open data initiatives are mainly information transparency, information privacy, information accessibility for citizens, and European regulatory changes. It’s also worth mentioning that the U.K. government has been involved in very large-scale IT projects in the past (e.g. NHS IT), which could qualify as big data program initiatives. For diverse reasons, these projects were not successful and experienced massive budget overruns and delays. We believe this could be a factor in the U.K. government not focusing its main effort on big data for now. However, the open data initiative is driving the open release of massive large public datasets, which eventually will require a strategic big data approach from the U.K. government.
What’s the state of data science in Europe?
Townsend and Somohano: Similarly to the status of big data, Europe lags behind in the adoption levels of data science. Even in the U.K. — an early adopter in many ways — data science is still viewed in some sectors with a certain dose of skepticism. That’s because data science is still understood as as new name for practices like business intelligence or analytics.
Additionally, in many large organizations in Europe the role of the data scientist is still not associated with a clear job description from the business and HR perspectives — and even in IT in some cases. Contrary to the corporate environment, where the data scientist role is still not fully recognized, in the European startup scene there is a healthy and vibrant data science community. This is perhaps best exemplified by our organization Data Science London. In its mission to promote data science and the data scientist role, our community is dedicated to the free, open dissemination of data science concepts and ideas.
Big Data Week is being held April 23-28. What are you hoping the event yields?
Townsend and Somohano: The main goal of Big Data Week is to bring together the big data communities around the world by hosting a series of events and activities to promote big data. We aim to spread the knowledge and understanding of big data challenges and opportunities from the technology, business, and commercial perspectives.
This interview was edited and condensed.