When it comes to the technology industry, Charlotte isn't usually listed as a hub. That title goes to places like Silicon Valley, New York, Boston and Seattle. But, Charlotte shows a lot of promise in the emerging technology field known as "Big Data."
Big Data refers to often unrelated sets of information, which are so large they require computers to dig through, with the potential to reach conclusions that would be impossible for a person to come up with. For example, let’s say you buy groceries at the supermarket. A week later, an ad from that supermarket pops up on Facebook, telling you there’s a discount on something you just bought.
“Say they purchase cat food,” says Danna Jones, a spokeswoman for Harris Teeter. “We can also let them know that maybe cat accessories are also on sale that week, so basically it just complements their previous purchases and things they’re used to purchasing, we can tell them other items they may also like.”
Think about the information that had to be crunched to get from you shopping to Facebook offering you cat toys.
Your purchase history has to be tracked through your supermarket rewards card. Harris Teeter has to generate a list of what you’re most likely to want if you’ve bought cat food—and then compare it to a list of discounts. Your e-mail address on your rewards card has to be matched to your Facebook account.
All of it culminates in a deal you’re statistically most likely to bite on. Analyzing data has been big business for decades, but on this scale, it’s a whole new field. And, it can be applied to almost any industry. For instance, health care.
Last year, Carolinas Healthcare System created a new division, called Dickson Advanced Analytics. The team can sort through the organization’s own health care data or combine it with outside information, such as geographic information systems or census data to reach conclusions about the most efficient ways to coordinate care.
“We look at household income, we look at poverty levels, we look at crime rates, whether a patient has visited the hospital, whether that patient is on their meds,” Allen Naidoo, the vice president of Dickson says, as an example. “We take that data and what we do is, we try and hone in on exactly where we should place mobile clinics.”
Dickson has 100 employees, one of the largest analytics shops in the healthcare industry, Naidoo says. And, it exemplifies why Charlotte has potential as a Big Data hub.
First, Charlotte companies, including Carolinas Healthcare System and Harris Teeter, are early adopters of Big Data analytics.
Second, as Jeff Stovall—the city’s chief information officer—says, Charlotte has the perfect ecosystem to become a leader in the field.
“You look at banking, you look at logistics—these are industries that operate on vast stores of information,” Stovall says. “Even the retail industries we have in Charlotte, like Family Dollar and Belk, these are companies that operate on vast stores of information.”
That means a lot of data waiting to be mined, which can be a magnet for companies and talent that specialize in analytics.
Abhishek Mehta is a good example. He used to run Bank of America’s analytics department, and then he left to found a start-up, called Tresata. It sells Big Data software to the finance and retail industries—it’s what Harris Teeter uses to power that Facebook app. Mehta says Charlotte is a long way from competing with traditional tech powerhouses like Silicon Valley, but has some advantages.
“While we may not have the cutting edge technology talent, we have the cutting edge business knowledge,” Mehta says. “A part of big data that’s not often spoken about is [that] business knowledge is as critical as technology knowledge.”
Since the field is so new, talent is in short supply. The consulting firm McKinsey reports that the U.S. will have about 200,000 more job openings in analytics than people who are qualified.
Here, again, is opportunity. At UNC Charlotte, for instance, says Olin Broadway. Broadway is a long-time tech entrepreneur in Charlotte, who works with UNC Charlotte’s new College of Computing and Informatics.
“Analytics is the top university priority that we have on a current day basis,” he says.
UNCC claims the college is the largest of its kind in the nation. The thinking goes that Charlotte talent could fill the jobs gap. And, that possibly, one day, Charlotte could be the capital of Big Data.