Big Data Part II: Smart Cities, Smarter Businesses

June 10, 2013
The authors of this post are JR Reed and Erik Sulcs. JR and Eric originally published this story on the blog of

This is the first of a two-part series on big data’s effects on various industries. Read Part 1: Championing Healthcare. 

Throughout the 21st century, information has been captured, analyzed, and then communicated at staggering rates. This surge of information is often referred to as “big data.” Big data is a movement, a paradigm shift, a new way of life – and something that is completely transforming the world around us.

On a macro level, big data analytics can improve the overall quality of city life, according to Dr. Katharine Frase, vice president and chief technology officer of IBM’s Smarter Cities Division. Frase spoke at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Business Horizon Series event in May.

Using big data analytics, South Bend, Indiana, for example, can predict when an area is likely to experience a wastewater overflow. The city applied that information to reduce the number of overflows from 27 incidences a year to just 1, saving $120 million in infrastructure repairs.

John Elder IV, founder and CEO of Elder Research, stressed that data mining can also help small businesses make decisions about makeup and strategy. He advised businesses to build interdisciplinary teams of experts in business, statistics, algorithms, and databases to dive into all kinds of data sets.

“As a business today, you must be able to work with messy data and can’t wait for the perfect data set,” Elder said. He stressed that analytics is the innovation that can help businesses harness all types of data. “Data mining is like putting on an ‘Iron Man’ Suit.”

Some businesses are successfully using big data to better serve their customers as well, said Rachel Nyswander Thomas, vice president of Government Affairs at the Direct Marketing Association. Wal-Mart, for example, has found that its customers are more likely to buy strawberry pop-tarts when a storm is coming and prepares accordingly.

The big data movement is even starting to affect the experiences of sports fans. The Washington Nationals Chief Operating Officer Andrew Feffer says the team is hitting a home run for fans by using big data.


Emulating a strategy used by England’s Arsenal Football Club, the Nationals front office designed a virtual ticketing system, in which season ticket holders gain access to games using a single plastic card instead of paper tickets. The team plans to expand this card to non season-ticket holders and ultimately let fans hold e-cash on these cards to pay for merchandise, parking, and concessions, earning loyalty points in the process Feffer said that he could envision the card being used as a farecard for the D.C. Metrorail as a way to start the fan experience the second a fan leaves his or her home.

 “You can control the fan experience through big data,” Feffer said. “The key is that the fan, or the consumer, is at the center of every transaction.”

The Nationals hope to fully implement this design in the next year or two. In five years, Feffer expects this to be the norm in professional sports.

“The missing element in sports in this country is the 360 degree view of the fan and using that in a way that’s beneficial to the game,” Feffer explained. “What big data has done is reshaped the landscape in sports.”