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Saturday, 6 July 2013 | MYT 12:00 AM

Big data’s big potential

MARKETERS can gain a strong competitive advantage through the ability to harness large, complex sets of data − the so-called “big data”.

The growing demand to process and analyse big data for marketing insights has spurred Pulse Group PLC, a leading digital research agency in Asia, to make a major investment plan in that area.

Among others, it aims to set up a specialised big data centre in Cyberjaya − said to be only the second such processing and analytics centre in the world − and turn the country into “Asia’s premier big data hub.”

So far, the seven-year-old company has mainly done research around the 4P’s of marketing (price, product, promotion, and place). That covers brand research, new product development research, segmentation research and pricing studies, among others.

To the public, Pulse is probably known best for its role in the annual Putra Brand Awards. Under the initiative, it polls 6,000 consumers − an unusually large sample size − to determine the nation’s top brands.

This year Pulse is branching off from structured, one-dimensional data into big data in a big way (no pun intended).

Pulse chief executive officer Bob Chua acknowledges that the new big-data arm, Pulsate, might overtake its current main business in terms of revenue eventually.

He says the worldwide market research revenue took about 100 years to grow to the current level of US$32bil. According to Wikibon, the big data market is forecast to grow to over US$50bil in just the next five years.

“So the growth of big data is much bigger and faster,” he tells StarBizWeek.

Pulse started big data work about a year ago because clients required it. Chua says at present, 10% to 15% of Pulse’s revenue is already coming from big data.

“We anticipate the need for it to be very high in the near future,” he says.

Like the 4P’s of marketing, big data has its 3V’s: volume, variety, and velocity (speed of data processing). More V’s have since been introduced over the last decade.

“Pulsate is responsible for finding the gold nuggets in the treasure trove of data, ie. patterns, correlations, etc. It is about making sense of data volume, speed and everything else,” he says.

Chua says large companies have data stored “all over the place” but may not have a way of mining the data for insights. Pulsate, which will focus on predictive analysis, can help.

“A lot of companies have data currently, but how to extract value from that is important. If data sit in different pockets, they are not ‘talking’ to each other.”

For a car company, he says, Pulsate can predict what models it will sell more of, who it will sell them to, and what kind of sales volume it will achieve.

“That’s where we will help brands. We will be the first in Asia to do this,” Chua says.

High-level jobs

Pulse’s latest project is expected to require an investment of RM20mil to RM60mil over the next three years. It consists of three components: people, platform and hardware.

On people, Chua says Pulsate must hire data analysts and data scientists (analysts who find insights by studying multiple sources).

Data scientists are much sought-after, making them among the highest paid professionals in the world. Hortonworks CEO Rob Bearden is quoted by as saying: “The talent pool is, at best, probably 20% of the demand.” (Hortonworks is a commercial vendor for big-data analytics platform Apache Hadoop.)

Regarding the second component (platform), Chua says it is the ability to take the different sets of data and parallel process them.

As for hardware, he describes it as “basically storage.” “There is so much data that you’re talking in terms of terabytes and petabytes rather than gigabytes and megabytes,” he says.

The specialised big data centre in Cyberjaya to process that high data volume is expected to be set up by the fourth quarter.

“We will create 200 very high-level jobs such as data scientists (within three years),” he says, adding that it is in line with the Prime Minister’s vision of boosting the nation’s gross national income per capita and the Digital Malaysia national programme.

The Pulse group also plans to start a training academy for data scientists, one of the first in the world. It will start operating together with the data centre.

“We will train fresh university graduates specialising in fields such as statistics and financial modelling and churn out data scientists and data analysts,” he says.

Chua says the outsourcing space in Malaysia involves mainly call centre work with low value and low margin. “We (Pulse) fit in the knowledge process outsourcing space. It may not involve a high number of jobs, but the output is high level,” he says.

Global tech icon

Pulse also hopes to work together with TalentCorp to tap on Malaysian talents abroad such as in the Silicon Valley. “We can attract them to come back or utilise them overseas,” he says.

While other countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore are also trying to be Asia’s premier big data hub, Chua feels Malaysia has the right ingredients to do it and Pulse has a good track record.

At present, Singapore is ahead, having opened a big data analytics centre earlier this year.

Chua says Pulsate will have two regional offices − in Singapore and Hong Kong. “The immediate target clients are large multinationals which have a lot of transactional data as well as governments.”

He adds that the company may open offices in Tokyo and Sydney as well.

Pulse Group was de-listed from London’s PLUS Stock Exchange in October last year. Chua, a 38-year-old Malaysian, is Pulse Group’s largest shareholder with a 41% stake, followed by Japan Asia Investment Co Ltd.

“We’ve made full use of being a public company and now we want more flexibility to do some of these other things. Bringing it private made sense for us,” Chua says, adding that it may be re-listed down the road.

Asked whether Pulse will try to get the Government, through agencies like Khazanah Nasional Bhd, to come in as investor, he says: “Perhaps. I think they might be interested.”

Chua says Malaysia has struggled to build a global technology icon and he hopes this can be achieved via Pulsate.

“There’s a big data wave and a lot of money is being invested in it. Moreover, Pulse has a track record. There’s no reason that we can’t do it.”

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