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7 “hidden” sources of big data (that you probably have)

EducationSummary: Many businesses assume they don’t have “big data.” But, they unknowingly generate (or have access to) large data sets that just go unused. Where is this data, and how can you turn it into a competitive advantage?

If you’re like most companies, you don’t generate terabytes of data. You have no need for Hadoop or “big data” processing.

Or do you?

photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc
photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc

As it turns out, businesses generate (or have access to) more data than they realize. They’re sitting on a gold mine of information that they never use.

Just imagine:

What if these businesses started using this data? What if they turned this data into meaningful management information?

They could answer new questions about the business. They could discover better ways to reach customers. They can learn new ways to improve efficiency.

The big question:

Where is this data? How can a business access this untapped potential?

Here are 7 “hidden” sources of big data that you probably have (or can access):

1. Public domain data

photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc
photo credit: geralt via pixabay cc

Even if your company doesn’t generate “big data”, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Big data is everywhere, and much of it is free for the taking.

How so?

Data placed in the public domain is freely available to any business. The problem is, many businesses either don’t realize it exists, or choose not to use it.

For example, here’s a list of freely available “big” data sources. How can your company use this data to your advantage? Look for ways to combine this free data with your existing data. What insights can you pull out of these sources?

Here’s one great example: This company explains how they used freely available census data to boost revenue.

“In a recent campaign we ran in Nashville, TN , we ran pay-per-click (PPC) Adwords campaign with one ad targeting the entire metro Nashville area,” says Bryan Clayton, CEO of GreenPal. “The headline read ‘Local Lawn Pros in Nashville are a click away.’ and I thought the performance of the ad was good with a click through rate of over one percent and conversion rate of over 10 percent on the Nashville landing page but we needed to improve on it.

We thought, how can we make this more contextual and relevant to the viewer? So we researched census data, looking at the average income and home values throughout the Nashville area.

We found that East Nashville, an up-and-coming neighborhood, was populated with more working class, and a creative class demographic and we hypothesized this customer segment would be price sensitive but still not want to cut their own lawns. So we segmented those zip codes and only ran a specific ad for them, with a headline ‘The Cheapest Lawn Mowing in Nashville. Lawn mowing from $20.’”

We then created a matching landing page. After running the ad for one month, on-page analytics proved the guess to be true. We saw over 200 percent lift in click through rate and and 30 percent lift in on-page conversion.

Studying the data your own business generates can tell you which of your online marketing campaigns works best. Do the ads appeal to your target market or another market altogether? The data may also point to completely new areas of customer interest.”

2. Energy metering

How much data does your office building generate? What if that data could help you save money every month? As explained below, this is a direction many companies are heading.

“One often-overlooked source of big data for companies is energy metering on their structures,” says Douglas R. Briggs, Director, Business Intelligence at Washington University in St. Louis. “While many companies with legacy structures have only building-level energy and utility metering, many more are installing metering locations to provide more granular collection and control of energy usage data. With granular data information collected by vendors’ systems, it’s possible to feed dashboards showing both real-time and trend resource usage, which can be used to influence occupant behavior or highlight opportunities for conservation.”

3. Emails and Memos

photo credit: Hebi65 via pixabay cc
photo credit: Hebi65 via pixabay cc

It’s estimated that 400,000 terabytes of new email messages are created every year. What are you doing with all of that email data?

Many companies place strict email storage size limits on their employees. But, what if–instead of making employees delete their emails–you stored that email data in a file system like Hadoop?

What would that do for you?

First, it gives your employees a way to go back and search through old emails (rather than deleting them). You never know when you might need to access an email from a few years ago.

Second, it opens the door for analysis on that email data. For instance, this company learned that employees worked less on Mondays and Fridays from analyzing email volume. Another example: As explained below, data contained in email can help you understand employee sentiment.

“Organizational emails and memos are often good sources of data, enabling companies to understand employee grievances and general buzz about ongoing events within an organization,” says Durjoy Patranabish, Senior Vice President – Analytics, for Blueocean Market Intelligence. “Tracking these data sources and their analysis helps organizations understand the current buzz in the organization and how people and executives have reacted to changes or the general environment.”

4. Customer Requests/Queries

How much data does your support department generate? From phone calls and emails with customers to support tickets, you can glean all types of information.

For instance, this data could highlight:

  • Problems with your product
  • New features your customers want
  • Customer training opportunities
  • Good/bad customer service reps in your company
  • and much more.

“Call center logs are vital in understanding the performance of customer service executives,” says Patranabish. “Tracking these requests, queries and responses over a period of time can help organizations evaluate their training programs and manage customer experience.”

5. Software log files

photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc
photo credit: PublicDomainPictures via pixabay cc

Your business software generates massive amounts of data in the form of log files. These log files track everything about that software usage. For instance, a server log file tracks when users log on and off, which applications they access, and much more.

What questions could that data help you answer? Here are a few:

  • Which applications are most popular?
  • Which applications are unused?
  • Which users access which applications the most?
  • How are users using the applications?

It doesn’t stop there. What if you could combine usage data across different software platforms in your business? Or, what if you could pull data out of your business software and give managers a clearer view of the business? For instance, as explained below, the data contained in collaboration tools would help businesses better understand project status and bottlenecks.

“Making sense of data from collaboration tools is important because managers are feeling increasing pressure to keep track of who’s doing what with whom and where projects stand,” says Brent Frei, Chairman, Co-Founder and CMO of Smartsheet. “Visualizing the data from collaboration tools can give managers a big picture view of where everything stands. A new report by the late tech industry news and analysis site GigaOM describes the value of combining people, work, and content in a visual framework that uncovers valuable insights about the patterns of work collaboration. Not only is it possible to graphically depict project status, you can now identify patterns in team collaboration, visualize hubs of activity, and identify who the top performers are.”

6. Outside social/forum data

Customers and prospects increasingly share opinions about companies across social sites and forums. More and more, I see people asking questions about specific companies or products on Twitter, Facebook, and forum sites.

Are you tracking this data? Not only does this information highlight your company’s perception in the market, it can provide other valuable insights. For instance, Patranabish explains how it helps you understand how to improve your products/services.

“Customer feedback mentioned on technical blogs and forums is useful for product development and engineering teams to understand the perceptions and general reactions to the features and services of the brand,” says Patranabish. “Improvements can be made on continuous tracking and analysis of customer feedback.”

7. Sensor data

As more hardware connects to the web, sensor data provides one of the biggest opportunities for real-time insights. In fact, it’s estimated that sensors will be the primary source of big data for years to come.

Where are all of these sensors? How are businesses using them today? Here are a few examples:

– Location-tracking sensors help transportation companies track and analyze their fleets.

– Sensors are making their way into homes and businesses, which track energy usage, activity, and more.

– Bluetooth beacons are cropping up–offering many companies incredible opportunities with big data.

– This article explains how an energy company installed sensors on old pipelines to monitor pressure, flow, and other data.


Businesses generate more data than they realize. How can they capitalize on this data? The first step: Begin storing this data in a framework like Hadoop. Once you start capturing this data, you can start creating reports and dashboards to analyze it. Chances are, you’ll find that it helps your business answer questions and provide insights that you never thought were possible.

So, what do you think? Is there anything you would add to this list? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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