Tourism's future: Big Data 

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Recording artist" used to be a term reserved for musicians contracted to record companies. This was before the music industry was eviscerated by Apple, and others, and made plastic discs with recorded music on them as essential as buggy whips.

Now we're all recording artists, recording sounds, images, events (and non-events) and making them available to the general public. This point was brought home in June while on vacation in the French Pyrenees.

A heavy rainstorm, following several days of warm weather, produced flash flooding in many towns and villages. We were staying in a B&B in Bagneres de Luchon. After helping the owners of the B&B put sandbags around the building, we returned to our rooms and got on the Internet. And there on YouTube was a video of the flood that was washing down the street in front of our B&B.

YouTube says that more than 100 hours of video are uploaded to its site every minute. More than six billion hours of video are watched on YouTube every month.

Of course video is only one recording medium. Buzzfeed.com did some calculations last year and estimated that we now take 380 billion photos a year. They further calculated that 10 per cent of all photos ever taken have been taken in the past 12 months.

Three-hundred-and-eighty billion annual photos are only a fraction of what has become known as Big Data. According to IBM, "Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90 per cent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. This data comes from everywhere: sensors used to gather climate information, posts to social media sites, digital pictures and videos, purchase transaction records and cell phone GPS signals to name a few."

While the size and scale of Big Data is hard to comprehend, IBM says there is more to it than size. "...it is an opportunity to find insights in new and emerging types of data and content... to answer questions that were previously considered beyond reach."

The New York Times this week reported on one aspect of Big Data. On Sunday Omnicom and Publicis announced they were merging to create the largest ad company in the world. According to the Times this, "...signals that advertising is now firmly in the business of Big Data: collecting and selling the personal information of millions of consumers."

A broader perspective of Big Data holds that it has four characteristics or dimensions: Volume, Velocity, Variety and Veracity. The first three are self-explanatory. The fourth, Veracity, needs a little explanation, again courtesy of IBM: "One in three business leaders don't trust the information they use to make decisions. How can you act upon information if you don't trust it? Establishing trust in big data presents a huge challenge as the variety and number of sources grows."

There are two kinds of data, structured and unstructured. Frederic Gonzalo (Fredericgonzalo.com), a marketing and communications guru specializing in the travel and hospitality industry, defines the two this way.

"Think of structured data as your hotel Property Management System (PMS), your web or blog's content Management System (CMS). Ideally brands already capture loads of data on customer preferences at various points of contacts, turning this into customer intelligence to propel a better experience, research and develop new or improved products and services.

"So what's unstructured data? Everything else, basically. Think of: Questions or comments answered on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin or any other social platform where a travel brand has a presence. User-generated content platforms such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and other sites and forums where consumers discuss your brand and where your e-reputation may be in question. Any and all interactions on third-party sites, from tour operators to inbound receptives to online travel agencies and anyone in between... Emails, photos, videos, testimonials exchanged either directly with the brand or on a shared platform."

Structured data accounts for about 20 per cent of data. Unstructured data is about 80 per cent of all data. Integrating unstructured data with structured data is the challenge currently facing those dealing with Big Data, as a study by visiting Harvard professor Thomas H. Davenport published earlier this year showed:

"Creating an integrated source of customer information is not only expensive, but difficult no matter how large the available budget. And of course navigating the related data privacy issues will always be a challenge. Individual customers typically have several different identities across different systems. It is particularly difficult to combine online or social media data with data from internal transactions systems."

Nevertheless, the tourism industry is starting to grapple with Big Data, integrating unstructured data with structured data to improve customer experiences. Tourism Whistler has taken a modest stab at this with its Whistler Unfiltered contest, featuring images shot by visitors.

Recently the Economic Partnership Initiative brought forward some new data that showed, among other things, the scale and significance of destination visitor spending for Whistler. But this is barely the tip of the data iceberg. There is a continuous flow of data that, if collected and analyzed, could be used to improve visitor experiences, pare expenses and increase profitability. Harvesting that data — in real time — is an expensive challenge, but it's one others in the tourism business are working on.

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