Sandy Blows Away Big-Data Resistance

Superstorm Sandyís lasting legacy may eventually eclipse her trail of destruction, at least in corporate America. Businesses are already recognizing the disaster as a symbol of the strength of social media -- and realigning policies to reflect the new reality.

Sandy confirmed the significance of real-time reporting by average people, and transformed traditional print and broadcast news reports to after-the-fact snapshots. Thatís the consensus from informal discussions with executives and mid-level managers at numerous corporations in the New York City metro area.

They seemed to be as awed by the power of social media -- and the big-data they created -- as they are by the devastation caused by the storm. During a series of off-the-record interviews I conducted in the past few days with people I know at Fortune 500 corporations and the smallest of businesses, several trends emerged.

Those I talked to showed newfound enthusiasm for social media and the way they enabled them to monitor potential issues and challenges related to the storm.

They closely monitored conversations, especially on Twitter, and proactively addressed problems that could have escalated as time dragged on.

And while social media are often maligned as a source of rumor and misinformation, they can be an equally effective way to provide a steady stream of factual information and preemptive solutions. These included everything from providing information about when stores and businesses would open and close to quelling buzz about a fuel mix-up at a New Jersey service station that inadvertently filled the tanks of several cars with diesel fuel.

For the first time, even corporations that have been slow to embrace social media realized they could protect their brands, track spikes in traffic, and develop effective responses to trending topics.

Itís not surprising. While the storm cut some victims off from the conversation, social media were still a significant source of information as the storm ravaged the US Northeast coastline. (See: Sounds of a Social Media Storm.)

Reports indicate people worldwide got a sense of events happening in the storm in real-time, thanks to those who were still able to access social media services like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. At GigaOmís RoadMap conference in San Francisco this week, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom conceded even he had an epiphany during the storm.

Systrom noted that social media aficionados sent 800,000 Instagrams tagged [Hurricane] #Sandy during the storm. As the images poured in, Systrom wondered one key thing: "How do we mine all these photos to make sense of them so you can consume the most interesting photos about Sandy?"

His conclusion: "Weíre going to need to be a big-data company."

As data professionals, you can appreciate his desire to curate this mass of unstructured information -- or, more precisely, to separate the best from the mess. While it is a complicated question to answer, businesses are already taking at least basic steps to gain market insight from everything people reported in images, tweets, status updates, and posts.

Many companies are now using products like the Salesforce Marketing Cloud to actively monitor social media for mentions of their brands. The goal: rapid response.

Dell has a Social Media Ground Control and Command Center, staffed by 70 employees who listen for and respond to mentions of Dell products 24 hours a day in 11 languages (English, plus Japanese, Chinese, Portugese, Spanish, French, German, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Korean). Earlier this year, with funding from Dell, the American Red Cross set up a similar Digital Operations Center.

The center played an integral part within the online community by providing immediate disaster relief information before and after the storm, the Red Cross reported. In a blog post as Sandy neared land, the relief organization noted, "Weíve been watching conversations online to stay on top of the latest information, concerns, and topics related to the storm."

What effect do you think Sandy will have on corporate demand for big-data solutions? How about its effect on more modest plans by small business owners?

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Re: Small Business and Big-data
  • 11/9/2012 12:42:18 PM

Beth, casually monitoring a twitter feed seems to me to be a very inexpensive way to gain market insight

Re: Small Business and Big-data
  • 11/8/2012 12:42:42 PM

in such competetive environment small businesses will be compelled to invest. their very survival in the market place will dictate it.

Re: Small Business and Big-data
  • 11/8/2012 11:36:28 AM

@Noreen, I'll jump in here with an "absolutely yes" -- in theory at least. The smaller the company the smaller the marketing budget, presumably. Finding money to spend on anything but casual social media watching may be beyond many small companies' means. Of course, if a small company lives primarily or exclusively online and/or has a very digital-savvy consumer base, then it surely better find the money!

Re: Small Business and Big-data
  • 11/8/2012 9:16:23 AM

At a minimum, even small businesses can start to monitor conversations about their companies/brands through tweets and other social media sources, don't you think?

Re: Increasingly unstructured!
  • 11/7/2012 10:47:01 PM

@mnorth , the evolution of data use and structure definition as been dramatic in a very short period of time. I can still recall being restricted to eighty column text record formats. Advances in incorporating greater data sources will lead to great potentials.

Re: Small Business and Big-data
  • 11/7/2012 10:30:48 PM

kicheko, over time the social media tools will expand in functional sophistication and prices will lower in cost as customer base increases. Every major natural disater, social or political event will put social media tools on full display.

Small Business and Big-data
  • 11/7/2012 4:36:45 PM

Most certainly disaster serves to soften the hearts of stone in many ways including adopting products they never would have. It is true though that small businesses didn't always reject big-data but many may have been put off by the fact that it is an expensive affair. Even so. i bet they may now consider investing in at least a modest cloud solution that can enable them to harness a tool like twitter after seeing its impact.

Increasingly unstructured!
  • 11/7/2012 3:57:40 PM

Your point is a good one, and the comment about Instagram volume got me thinking about the nature of the data -- it is increasingly unstructured.  It used to be when we said 'unstructured', we were talking about text, about data that wasn't neatly arranged into columns and rows.  But in the age of big social media, there is data in photos, in images, in maps, in sound recordings, in video.  Being able to mine big data means being able to examine data that are structured in those media, and not just in numbers and letters.