Big Opportunities in Big Data

Last October, award-winning data journalist and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill associate professor Ryan Thornburg did an interview with Personify on big data and the open movement. (You can check out the full article here.)

In the article, Thornburg discussed how individuals could use the same type of data that journalists use to hold governments and businesses accountable. He also mentioned how much of this data can provide unique opportunities for entrepreneurs.

This portion of the interview stuck out to us, so we decided to reach out to Thornburg to speak with him about enterprise data and how it can affect entrepreneurship and innovation.

"Data today is like what [natural] resources were 100 to 200 years ago," he said. "Who knows what you could make from that data."

Unlike the resources like oil and timber however, "data is essentially renewable and sustainable."

Thornburg's main focus has been public data, or data that the government collects. In fact, he founded, "a catalog of digital public data created by state and local governments in North Carolina." By law, this information is free. Thornburg simply collected it and placed it in once central location.

But how does this help entrepreneurs?

"If I'm an innovator and I want to try out some new method, what better thing to try it out on than resources that are freely available rather than paying Facebook for data?" he said.

In addition to aiding entrepreneurs in obtaining logistics relevant to their product, public or government data can be used in a multitude of ways, from realtors trying to decide where to sell property or entrepreneurs trying to decide where best to market their products.

Thornburg provides the work in data collection of Carolina political science professor Frank Baumgartner as an example. Baumgartner uses data to help attorneys not only find business, but also make better arguments for their clients.

The Reese News Lab, a project focused on developing and testing new ideas for the media industry based out of the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is also tackling big data. The summer 2015 project DatabasedNC is working to improve the transparency in the NC Trial court system and the Fall 2014 project TarNation is an online database of job postings, internships and advice for the UNC community.

There are also several startups geared toward analyzing, interpreting and presenting this data, including Durham-based Automated Insights (Ai), a startup taking data and writing business stories with it for the Associated Press. Ai takes big data and converts it into written reports with the personality and analytical skills that once only human writers possessed.

It's clients include the Associated Press, Yahoo!, Comcast and Samsung.

OpenGov is a startup founded in 2012 that aims to bring greater transparency to government through use of a cloud-based financial analysis platform. In 2014, Silicon Valley venture capital fund Andreessen Horowitz invested nearly $15 million into the startup.

San Francisco startup Mattermark works to quantify growth signals of over 1 million private and public technology companies around the world in order to help investors make more informed decisions. Its customers include venture capital firms, angel investors and sales and marketing professionals.

When asked if he expected to see more startups like Automated Insights, Thornburg said, "I have no evidence to prove that it's a growing field, but it is a growing area of opportunity."

"There's a lot of opportunity for people in a variety of fields to create new products."

Andreeseen Horowitz’ Peter Levine also believes that big data will be a huge startup trend in 2015, telling Business Insider, “Where business intelligence before was about past aggregates ('How many red shoes have we sold in Kentucky?'), it will now demand predictive insights ('How many red shoes will we sell in Kentucky?').”

Big data has become a valuable tool for today’s entrepreneur. She can create a way to share the data, like Thornburg did with, or use the data to gain insight on her own startup.

The message is clear: big data can be used to spur entrepreneurship and innovation.


by Rachel Schmitt