Travel can play catch up in the big data race, says Harvard academic

The travel industry can make up for lost time in exploiting the opportunities that big data represents, but it could take three to five years, according to a leading academic.


Professor Thomas Davenport, of the Havard Business School, says airlines in particular have ceded ground having been one of the early adopters of customer and business data analytics.


He was talking to Travolution as global technology giant and GDS Amadeus released its latest research paper authored by him looking at big data adoption and the challenges for travel.


The report, entitled ‘At the big data crossroads: turning towards a smarter travel experience’ suggests firms need to act sooner rather than later to reap the benefits of big data.


“Travel was an early adopter of many of these ideas but it rested on its laurels for a couple of decades and has not really done much, certainly in the airline sector.


“It’s been better in the hotels sector, and much better in the online travel agency and aggregator space but not so much in the airline space.”


Although something of a buzz word that has been picked in marketing circles, big data does refer to not just advanced data warehousing but new technologies designed to mine and make sense of it.


Amadeus has brought in Pascal Clement as its new head of travel intelligence from the Business Intelligence (BI) sector where he worked for a number of specialist technology vendors since 1992.


“All this new technologies that are popping up with the emergence of big data suddenly are bringing a solution to a problem which has remained unsolved for the last 15 years,” he said.


“Organisations and vendors have tried to bring new in technology to address the overall problem, which was one of performance.


“The way to do it was to pre-organise everything which allowed response times to be okay. The more you do that the more the environment is complex and difficult to maintain and move.


“Suddenly with all this new technology we have some really cool things coming on the development side.


“This allows you to do things without having to pre-prepare the data – the promise of BI which was to give you the answer to what’s happening in your business and what to do can now happen.


“It’s very interesting what’s happening today; yes we have all this data which we call big data, but it’s bringing a solution to an old problem which was never solved.


“Data warehousing was an approach to how to deal with your data, mostly internal structured data. This is more about how you handle relatively unstructured data.


“Big data is bringing in not only a completely new approach from a technological stand point but it is coming at it from a different angle.


“There is so much complexity, speed and volume of data that you do not really know what you are looking at.


“The two worlds are going to need to be combined and live with each other. Most customers have already started on a BI journey but this is still very siloed in the travel industry.”


Amadeus says it is already looking at big data technologies and will seek to position itself as a partner which can help its customers take advantage of the opportunities.


This will result in intelligent machine mining of diverse data sets allowing companies to identify trends and issues they were not necessarily looking for in the first place.


The Amadeus reports highlights a number of travel industry case studies of firms already using big data techniques including Air France/KLM which has adopted the latest Hadoop IT architectures.


Examples of big data applications already developed by Amadeus are Extreme Search and Featured Results and it was also used in its recent report on the world’s air “super routes”.


Clement said the big data technology infrastructure was being built at Amadeus today and that there would be more announcements by the end of this year.


Amadeus is also busily adding in-house expertise in this area recruiting and training a new generation of data scientists which would be available to help its customers.


A lack of suitably qualified people was identified in the as an issue facing travel companies meaning data scientists today come at a premium.


Prof Davenport said there would be competitive advantage in moving first on big data for a limited period but that the other concern for travel was someone cracking it from outside the sector.


“If you look at Google, they have already moved in that direction with ITA [Software] and some trip planning applications on Android devices. It’s quite possible someone else could move in.”


But Prof Davenport said travel start-ups were meeting the challenge and were probably in prime position to make the most out of big data due to being unencumbered by legacy systems.


“The travel industry has historically had large volumes of data but it’s been quite structured and that probably still exists and needs to be addressed.


“But now you are adding data like social media, images, video, potentially audio and a lot of other different types to the mix.


“The good news is we have at the same time all as all this new data new technology that makes it much cheaper and faster to store and process but it’s fair to say we are still in early days.


“Those technologies do not yet necessarily have the data management approach that we need in terms of security and back up and reliability.”


Clement added: “This is a wake-up call to the travel industry to realise there is technology available and they need to move forward to improve both profitability and the experience of the traveller.


“What this is bringing is massive revolution. It’s not just volume and information, it’s bringing new technology, a whole new approach.”


You can download the Amadeus big data report for free from the company’s website.  

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