Although there can no longer be any doubt that French companies need to make the transition to digital, scepticism remains in some sectors as to the usefulness of Big Data in their business.

Big Data: “We need to move towards an approach based on Open Innovation”

Interview with Mathias Herberts, co-founder of Cityzen Data, a specialist in mass data management, on the sidelines of the Big Data Paris trade fair on 10 - 11 March.

L’Atelier: You set up the Cityzen Data platform, which specialises in Big Data. What was the original motive behind that?

Mathias Herberts: Cityzen Data was born from a need expressed by Smart Sensing, a consortium specialising in smart textiles run by a company called Cityzen Sciences. They were looking to embed sensors into textile fibres – a new approach which was intended to generate a huge amount of data. For instance, running for one hour wearing this smart clothing will produce around 200,000 measurements. So they had to decide what exactly they were going to do with all this data. We soon realised that such data presented a real challenge.  After all, back in 2011, there were as yet no tools on the market for processing this type of data flow. That was what prompted us to jump in.

Quite apart from smart clothing, we realised that our tool could be applied to all kinds of data produced by sensors. In early 2013, we created an independent platform designed to enable the collection, logging and manipulation of data generated by sensors.

L’Atelier: Are there any sectors that tend to shun Big Data, despite the fact that they could really benefit from using it?

Mathias Herberts: Well, the press, for example. This is a sector that is struggling to find its way and has not yet really asked what advantages such data might bring them. We should mention however the regional daily paper Ouest-France, which has just announced an investment of several dozen million euros to carry out a digital transformation to enable a data-based approach.

There are a number of other traditional business sectors where they are working on this area, but in a very light way. This is the case with automobile manufacturers, where digital progress is being slowed down by the constant need to replace existing models. Improvements being incorporated in the latest vehicles require data management but it’s likely to take rather a long time before this practice becomes widespread throughout the industry.

L’Atelier: A recent report by The Economist suggests that many companies are struggling to use their data in a ‘smart’ way. Do you share that view?

Mathias Herberts: In big companies such as banks and insurance companies in France, IT has for a long time now been sub-contracted out and generally regarded as an ancillary activity. However, in the new world of Big Data, this activity will need to be increasingly integrated into the core businesses. A fruitful data analysis depends on three crucial points: data collection, people with the ability to draw conclusions from the data – i.e. data scientists and data engineers – and thirdly, mastery of the new information and communication technologies. Many companies are still reluctant to incorporate these last two points into their day-to-day organisation.  But firms that farm these tasks out to external providers run the risk that little by little they’ll lose control of their core business and wake up one day to find they’re totally dependent on external data players who have taken control of innovation across the entire sector. And how will a company be able to differentiate itself from competitors if the same data player is providing each and every innovation to all firms in the sector?

Companies really need to wake up to the true potential of good use of Big Data. Unfortunately there’s a long way to go to set up the right process and change the way firms are organised. There are still too many company managers who think that the advent of data and systems automation will jeopardise their own credentials.

L’Atelier: So how can they be brought round?

Mathias Herberts:  Some people inside companies feel that they own the data in their particular field and are not inclined to share it. So company bosses ought to be introducing proper governance in the data field and changing the mindset of people in different areas of the business. They need to explain that those people are not the owners of the data but are responsible for it. The basic idea is to break down barriers between the different areas.  

L’Atelier: Does France possess the necessary resources and potential to turn Big Data into a strategic advantage for businesses?

Mathias Herberts: France does have strong potential but not where you might expect to find it. Relationships between a major corporation and a service provider that simply does what he is asked to do are not the right approach for Big Data. We need to move towards an approach based on Open Innovation that enables close collaboration between big companies and innovative tech startups whose business is based on their skills and knowhow in a given field – such as credit fraud, predictive marketing or product co-creation.

L’Atelier: So what exactly is the role of start-ups in the Big Data industry?

Mathias Herberts: Startups are major players in the Big Data industry. Those whose profession it is work with Big Data need both a sound technical training and a high degree of scientific knowledge. All data-based services – such as predictive marketing, anomaly detection, scoring, etc – require a lot of time to build up. These are fields where a startup with an original concept – working hand-in-hand with a major corporation which provides a field for experimentation and testing and thus helps the startup to create a mature product – can really make its mark. This is the way a startup is able to get a foothold in the ecosystem and I assure you that they are set to take over more and more ground. 

By Anthéa Delpuech