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"Big data is here to stay", according to entrepreneur Chris Cooper – who is an example of where an SME is utilising the resource.

SMEs’ ability to utilise big data often involves utilising third-party computing power or expertise. We spoke to Chris Cooper, co-founder and director KnowNow Information, about how their company is leveraging big data to provide new services and the opportunities this process offers small businesses. 

Read more on big data application:

What does KnowNow Information do?

It was set up by me and David Patterson. We’re both ex-IBM and we both have a passion for smart cities. We were frustrated by corporate world’s manic focus on the bottom line and trying to position a ready-set product that didn’t fit the market need at the time. The market was looking for companies that would take a bit more risk and provide improving outcomes.. 

We’ve been going a year. IBM data and analytics team is a business partner. Bluemix [an open standard, cloud-based platform for building, managing, and running apps] allows us to rapidly develop and employ new applications. 

Could you talk about the amount of data that’s becoming available and what’s driving this?

The level of information we have is still not good enough, it’s not granular, it’s still too hard to find. It’s getting better. The Hampshire Hub [which provides data about the local area] has done a great job. We are working with data owners directly. 

The other point around exploiting data is that we still tend to be in the hobbyist world. We’re not creating useful things; we haven’t had the open data that’s changing government policy. It is starting to change lives, for example, tube data improves people’s lives. But you don’t have that single TFL [Transport for London] app that says walk because it’s closer and we’ll give you a credit. We’re not quite there at achieving that common good, to generate that business value to do so. We have a way to go, but there are small steps being taken. 

How useful is it for SMEs to partner with a local university or organisations like Hartree?

It’s massive. SMEs have two really key advantages: they can have more risk and, depending on your capabilities, you should be able to deliver; and the flexibility of being able to change your direction, albeit within a cost envelope. Because you’re in an early market, you need that flexibility. 

But you need to recognise when you don’t have all the expertise in-house. As an SME it’s really exciting and we have our place, but you don’t have to recognise when you need to let the big boys in. 

Could you talk about the opportunities for local authorities to provide data and your work with Hampshire Hub?

If you can release information then incentivise people to take advantage of it you can promote change. Big data only becomes useful if you take advantage of it. We came up with Whether You Do Or Weather You Don't using Hampshire Hub Partnership as an open data source. 

What does You Do Or Weather You Don't do?

If you know because of historical incidents that this happens when that happens you can organise your staff accordingly. Flooding was the chosen data story and we’re going through a really interesting process of looking at what data is useful. They [the local authority] identify the flooding event at a river level, and that’s different to how emergency services handle it and how we look at the weather. 

The idea is to think about how you can best allocate resources for flooding. Hampshire fire and rescue spent a huge amount on overtime in two weeks that wasn’t planned or budgeted when there are the resources available in the country to handle that demand if we can better understand what’s going to happen. 

What’s the company’s relationship with the Hartree Centre and its data mining capacity?

The Hartree Centre is providing the computer facilities. It’s an IBM server farm, in effect. We’re only using one node because Hampshire doesn’t produce enough data to drive it further. 

How have you been able to find personnel with this kind of expertise?

We have two strands. We’re hiring young, keen apprentices. They’re useful in terms of their passion and we need to teach a skill set, so grabbing them young is good. And it’s good to invest in a younger generation. 

We try to partner and work with local SMEs if possible, if not on a local level then a national or global level. We have a really good relationship with IBM being able to call in and see if they can give us this advice and this technology. 

What’s the future for big data and SMEs?

Big data is here to stay. We need to get used to understanding what value we want out of it. What’s it going to do for me? Let’s not get bedazzled by having oodles of this, if it’s oodles of grey goo it doesn’t mean anything. 

As we become more specialist we better understand what’s going on and you will be looking at going to trusted advisors to see what the insights mean to you. You’re going to have that happen more and more on a contractual basis and that’s an opportunity for SMEs. Having the information is one thing, knowing what do with it is another. 

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