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“I’m not sure if Big Data is the most appropriate name for it, but the subject is definitely hot. Businesses gather enormous amounts of data and there are not nearly enough people that can deal with that, the so called data scientists.”

Kevin Pak (photograph: ORTEC)

Kevin Pak is helping to set up the specialisation Big Data Business Analytics, which will be offered as of September 2015 as a track of the UvA’s Master of Science in Econometrics. Two core courses are already scheduled to start this year in September: Quantitative Marketing and Machine Learning. Pak: “More and more of these courses are appearing, but what distinguishes the UvA’s track is the strong link with the business community. The curriculum is created by people who, like myself, know precisely what businesses need. It is quite extraordinary that different faculties like econometrics, computer sciences and business teach the courses. I believe collaboration between all three disciplines is a necessity. Data analysis has so many aspects that it has to be approached from different disciplines.”

Hype

As a ‘hot topic’ a lot is written about Big Data, but it seems there is no clear definition yet. But there is criticism that it’s a hype without much substance. Pak: ”In any case, Big Data is about massive amounts of data that are being collected, in part thanks to the internet. It’s easy to track people very precisely. And of course financial institutions have extensive knowledge about consumers; how much they earn, what they do, what they buy and where. Linking available information in an intelligent way creates new information. This requires mathematics and statistics as taught in econometrics. Also knowledge of computer sciences is required, about processing power, speed of algorithms and massive databases. And the business side is also important: which interesting new information can be gathered based on the available data? How do you ensure the information gets added value? Right now, people with these different backgrounds do most data analyses in cooperation with each other. But companies are searching for employees that possess all these skills themselves. Which can definitely be taught.”

Optimal utilisation

Pak will teach the Quantitative Marketing course. It’s the field he has been working in for the past ten years as a consultant. Before that, his PhD-thesis was about ‘dynamic pricing’ for airline companies and other businesses. With dynamic pricing the price varies continuously based on changing demand, the pricing of competitors, etc., to achieve of the best possible utilisation level. Pak: “Most people can picture how data analyses can be used for targeted consumer marketing. But there are a lot more possibilities that can be applied. I am for example interested in how, besides objective criteria, subjective criteria like reviews can be integrated in analyses. I am curious what the real value is of these reviews. If customers are positive, does that mean they will return? In my consultancy practice I often hit upon interesting research subjects. But very cutting edge projects never become a priority in a commercial environment, while for a university these can be very interesting. I am really looking forward to doing scientific research again.”

Smart cities and health checks

Upon request, Pak is happy to picture some ways Big Data may change our future. “Technology keeps evolving, so the amount of available data will keep on growing. We have identified the sectors that will be influenced most strongly. First of all my area of expertise: marketing. And of course the financial sector, which gathers unbelievable amounts of transaction data, holds endless opportunities. Also logistics is an area that can really benefit from Big Data. A lot is written about smart cities. With GPS data there is exact knowledge at any given time where people are and how many of them. Cities can use that information for example with manipulating traffic lights. And real-time traffic information can be used to encourage alternative routes via navigation systems. But it will be a real breakthrough when individuals also genuinely start profiting from Big Data. I expect an example of this in healthcare. Big enterprises like Google are developing ways to realise real-time health checks. This will be possible through the use of a bracelet of maybe even an implanted computer chip that converts measurements into graphics. If you apply algorithms and statistics to this information, it will generate a lot of information about possible health risks and it could help avoid a lot of misery.”

More information? E-mail redactie-feb@uva.nl