Companies and governments can collect, analyze and deploy gigantic amounts of data to optimize their services. It seems that consumers will thereby lose a lot of privacy. But is that to their disadvantage? And how exactly is this data used?

IBM introduced the first hard disk in 1956. It weighed more than a ton, and had a storage capacity of 5 megabyte. You could therefore save five high-resolution photos on it. The hard disk was not for sale, but, as a company, you could ‘rent’ the disk space for around $ 3,200 a month. Today, however, you can pay ten dollars a month for two terabytes of cloud storage. 400,000 times more storage space for next to nothing. The technological environment has never been so beneficial for the collection and analysis of big data: big data is cheap, easy to obtain and houses a wealth of information. Many companies still do not make optimum use of it today, however.

Just for clarity, what is big data exactly? The term is an overall expression for a large assortment and volume of data that we receive from different sources in a constant flow: files, photos, sensor data, tweets, etc. If you structure and analyze all that information, it can have a significant relevant value. It has become a bit of the new Holy Grail: the ultimate policy instrument across all sectors and industries.

Problem with the modem or line? The supplier will call you himself

To make a few things concrete: at Telenet we analyze the viewing behavior of our Play More subscribers. In this way, for example, we discovered that seventy per cent experience an ‘out-of-catalog’ moment on an annual basis: the fact that the series that a subscriber has been watching is removed from the catalog before he/she has seen everything. Thanks to the collected data, we can now alert a customer about that out-of-catalog date in good time, so that he/she will not be faced with a fait accompli.

We have also started collecting information about the performance of modems by placing sensors: how often they fall out or falter, for example. In the future, the customer will no longer have to call us to say that his/her modem doesn’t work anymore. We’ll be able to inform him/her. Sensor data is therefore an important element in preventive maintenance, and will save customers from many frustrations.

There is plenty of experimenting taking place with this form of data in other sectors and industries – which is also called the Internet of Things (IoT). Thanks to the information collected by sensors about air humidity, air quality, heat, speed, movement, rotation or location, we are evolving towards a period in which the supplier himself can inform the customer when maintenance needs to be carried out. Sensors on pipelines monitor the flow of raw materials and detect gas and oil leaks in real time. Poorly functioning pacemakers or hearing aids send signals to the hospital. But governments can also take advantage of this: by measuring where and at what time how many cars are on the road, more specific adjustments can be made to their road network. Thanks to pressure sensors on waste bins, even the pick-up service can find out how full they are and can adjust their route accordingly.

New insights about ice cream

In the past, companies could only rely on information that came directly through the customer channel: the products that a customer bought, the time of payment, the frequency of contacts, etc. Apart from that, we had to rely on our historical knowledge, experience and intuition. And this is where big data now brings us firmly back down to earth. Because, today, we can recognize patterns in those large amounts of data that are sometimes counter-intuitive.

For example a well-known ice cream manufacturer assumed that ice creams were only eaten in good weather. Marketing campaigns were invariably tailored to that intuitive knowledge. But thanks to a thorough analysis of the purchase figures, it became clear that there was no correlation between the amount of ice cream consumption and weather conditions. The consumer saw the ice cream more as a ‘treat’ or snack, like, say, a Bounty. In short, big data sometimes contradicts our intuition and can lead us to new, unexpected insights.

All of the above examples are illustrations of how big data can improve the service provided to citizens. But it can also be used in the field of security. There is now a separate justice cell at Telenet in which a lot of data is brought together. If someone is a suspect in a police investigation, we are obliged to release sensitive information, for example, regarding mobile phone use. We will never unlock customer privacy data if there is no judicial ground, however.

Customers therefore do not have to worry: as a company, we have no interest in the private data of individuals. We mainly use big data to pick up trends and to align our services and our product range accordingly. Hopefully, the new data privacy legislation (GDPR) can also remove some of the existing suspicion about big data, now that consumers themselves can determine the extent to which their data is used for marketing purposes.