Big data becomes business as usual at ESOMAR Big Data World

By Kyle Findlay

ESOMAR Big Data World took place in Brooklyn, New York at the end of November 2017. It was a relatively intimate affair as far as ESOMAR events go but it was filled with the right people.

The two days were grouped into sensible sessions including talks around thinking about big data (including my own), innovative applications (generally tied to familiar insights questions, just answered with new data sources), large dataset applications (lots of database merging, tagging and imputation going on here), mobile applications, programmatic and advertising applications, and more. It really did cover a large variety of “big data” areas, but things were always brought back to insights and marketing in a meaningful way. This wasn’t just geeking out on cool technology for technology’s sake (although there was some of that too).

Of particular relevance was the decidedly unsexy, but incredibly important, session on data privacy. The area is of vital importance given the imminent implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will affect companies around the world. Seldom in the past have data privacy issues been so front and centre, and attendees really got to grapple with the implications thanks to some particularly knowledgeable guests in this area.

The biggest ‘theme’ that stood out for me was around the fusion – or rather, natural convergence – of market research and big data. Rather than standing in stark opposition to each other as replacements, the conference ended up focusing on the ways in which traditional insight thinking is augmented and enhanced, rather than replaced, by more data and new data science techniques. In hindsight, one shouldn’t be surprised by this convergence of fields. “Big data” has always been a buzzword used to describe the gap between the kinds of data that our industry has traditionally leveraged and the new kinds that have become available in recent years. As market researchers, we stand uniquely poised to take advantage of new data sources. After all, data is our industry’s lifeblood. It’s just taken us a while to play catch up given our legacy approaches, and reliance on, traditional data sources. If nothing else, this conference proved that we’ve clearly moved past this temporary roadblock and into the new data dispensation, even if the future is not evenly spread across our industry just yet (to butcher sci-fi author, William Gibson’s, all-too-oft-quoted aphorism). 

Coming from the data science world, it was great and humbling to see presenters leveraging advanced techniques, but only in the aid of insights which have always been the bread and butter of our industry. It’s easy to be intimidated by startups and technology players bandying about the latest and greatest technological breakthrough in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, but it was much more relevant – and a good reminder of what’s important in our industry – seeing presenters casually reference word embeddings and LSTM neural networks in subordination to the client questions that they were used to answer. This reminds us that our industry always has been (and always will be) data- and methodology-driven but only to the extent that they help us surface actionable and impactful insights for our clients. The days of being intimidated by new data sources, technologies and methodologies are over. They are being democratised to the point where they just become more tools in a researcher’s toolbox. It behoves researchers to familiarise themselves with (and get excited about) the new tools at our disposal. 

The conference left me feeling surprisingly optimistic and energised about our industry. In recent, years, market research conferences have been relatively dour affairs, with researchers concerned about the machines and tech companies coming to take our jobs. What this conference demonstrated was that the uncertainty over the place of surveys (or what I prefer referring to as “intentional questioning”) has dissipated to some degree as we now better understand the role they play in the new data dispensation. With this cognitive dissonance mitigated to some degree, researchers were able to get on with geeking out about the things that we love in the first place: data and insights; and, with big data, data science, artificial intelligence and similar topics covered during the conference, we spent much more time revelling in the possibilities (and the current reality as demonstrated by many great presenters), providing for an energising conference.

ESOMAR is our industry’s fairy godmother and this shows in the care and attention to detail that goes into organising each event. By sifting through paper submissions, they always ensure that quality is high. Given their interest in protecting and empowering our industry, conferences have sometimes been criticised for celebrating the status quo over the new and disruptive; however, such a criticism could not be leveraged at the organisation in recent times. They do a great job of pulling in new innovations while still keeping content firmly rooted in the insights paradigm. Thus, they ensure that our industry and professionals continue to evolve within the market research tradition rather than in parallel to it.

Kyle Findlay is Director: Global Data Science Team, Kantar Innovation