Risky business: how to avert a crisis using big data

How companies are harnessing the power of big data to create opportunity in adversity

The one constant in the world is its unpredictability. When the subprime mortgage crash upset the world’s economy in 2007, only a few people really saw it coming. Businesses around the world are racing to find new strategies in the wake of Brexit, and industries like logistics and transport must consistently find ways around unexpected disruptions. Experts have always been engaged by corporations and other institutions to monitor their supply chains or keep tabs on external factors such as geopolitics and climate, but the big data era is allowing this monitoring to happen faster, less expensively and more comprehensively than ever before.

Patrick Lord worked for a decade at Control Risks, a global consultancy that helps companies predict and avert problems that might otherwise derail them. He’s now Managing Partner at a smaller business intelligence firm, Diligencia, which gathers information across the Middle East and is one of the key suppliers to Control Risks.

Early in his career, he says, people would assess the risks their businesses faced “on a much more haphazard basis; it would be based on the views of the gut instinct of whoever managed the supply chain. [The companies] would be reactive as opposed to proactive, which they’re having to be now.” The new reality, he says, is that “there’s more data than ever online; people are almost overwhelmed by data.”

With the right tools, this information can be harnessed to create powerful predictive models, updated in real time, which can help businesses adjust to new ground-level realities without missing a beat. And once these processes are in place, volatility can be turned into opportunity, rather than disaster.

Lord mentions Arachnys, a purpose-built search engine that businesses can use to find information in multiple languages and behind paywalls. This type of technology is “disrupting the entire market,” he says.

It was just last year that Doug Laney, Chief Data Officer for IT advisory company Gartner, predicted that a third of enterprises’ access to big data will be via data brokers by 2017. Chief Data Officer, incidentally, has become an increasingly common role over the last year; institutions including the [itals]Financial Times[itals] and the UK government have created a position for a CDO since 2015, and Gartner estimating that 90 per cent of large organisations will have one by 2019.

“Your company’s biggest database,” Laney writes, “is the web itself and the world of exogenous data now available from syndicated and open-data sources.”

This data is “highly fragmented, voluminous, noisy and distributed,” and Laney believes that a “new category of business-centric cloud services that deliver data to be used as context in business decisions” will increasingly operate as a middleman.

The Beirut-based start-up Eqlim (“territory” in Arabic), which describes itself as a risk intelligence data service for global supply chains, operates in this space. Launched by Harvard architecture graduate Hassan Alassaad in 2013, and boosted by a US$425,000 angel investment from Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour, the company now employs eight engineers and 10 analysts, and is looking to expand the test team that’s currently in Barcelona to better service European and North American clients.

Eqlim provides a subscription service alerting companies and organisations to disruptive events in real time – geopolitical, infrastructural, environmental – that could impact their operations. “It could be an aerial attack in the vicinity of an oil and gas exploration camp in the middle of the desert somewhere,” Alassaad says. "Or a protest at a mine in Chile. We pick up those signals from publicly available internet content that is present but buried in a multitude of media, platforms and languages.”

The data, gathered from social media and the rest of the web, in more than a dozen languages, is turned into maps, charts and other types of digestible information, which is delivered to clients via an API (software that integrates with users’ own systems) a web interface, an app or automated email alerts.

“Speed is essential,” he says. “Data delivery way ahead of mainstream media is crucial to provide our clients with an edge, and hyper-local content is essential for the production of granular information.”

Your company’s biggest database is the web itself and the world of exogenous data… often highly fragmented, voluminous, and noisy

Doug Laney, Chief Data Officer for IT advisory company Gartner

These clients are diverse, including analysts embedded in various sectors and the information services industry, as well as academics and the media. In May, the [itals]Financial Times[itals] used Eqlim’s data as part of a piece on the failure of Turkey’s Kurdish peace process.

Alassaad launched the service after spotting an opportunity to solve shortcomings in the quality and availability of risk intelligence.

“When you’re living and operating from the Middle East, you are continuously exposed to risk assessments often disassociated from any reality on the ground. You see it over and over again,” he says.

At the same time, the availability of internet content was increasing exponentially, “an explosion of raw web and social media information that was open and available, but which in the context of Eqlim, required a high level of extraction and refinement to make it useful,” he says.

While automation has an important role to play in this process, “human oversight and curation are essential aspects,” Alassaad emphasises. “The aim is not to replace but augment the work of human analysts.”

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Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour, who helped fund risk intelligence firm Eqlim

Patrick Lord agrees. “I’m of the view that you’ll never get away from some kind of human input to draw conclusions and turn [the data] into meaningful analysis for the subject you’re talking to,” he says. “Real people can also “remove the false positives, duplications and erroneous results that systems, however good, can still create.”

It’s true that human oversight is important now, but the idea that it will always be needed may be wishful thinking from someone employed by the industry. With AI technology progressing by leaps and bounds, and software in existence like IBM’s Watson, which can process natural language and continue “learning” as it’s used, it’s not hard to imagine algorithms one day making judgement calls on risk levels and summarising its findings in an understandable way.

What we do know is that the volume of data out there is going to keep growing, spurred on by an ever-increasing number of apps, gadgets and networked devices. Meanwhile, real-world events remain predictably unpredictable. New technology is constantly torpedoing old business models, and geopolitical instability isn’t going away any time soon.

“The last ten years have been very interesting when looking at country risk assessments literature and reports on risk,” Alassaad comments. “Since 2011, all sorts of upheaval and geopolitical changes came as a surprise, with either businesses or governments being blindsided by how things were evolving on the ground in several countries in the region: countries that are portrayed as extremely stable one day, the next day are not.”

The aim is not to replace but augment the work of human analysts

Hassan Alassaad, Founder, Eqlim

Patrick Lord lists a few of the key upheavals that have been impacting businesses in the region: the effect of tumbling oil prices on Saudi Arabia’s economy, conflicts in Yemen and Libya, terrorist attacks carried out by IS.

Against this backdrop, he has also witnessed a big uptick of interest in investing in Iran, and of interest in Dubai as a stable regional business and finance hub from which to tackle markets in the Middle East, Africa and further afield.

With all this in mind, the most competitive companies will continue to be those who can stay on top of up-to-the-second information from the greatest diversity of sources, and act quickly in accordance with that knowledge. “Data is king,” Lord concludes.

“That’s what makes business better, it makes transactions more efficient and marketplaces more competitive. It’s in everyone’s interests for better quality information to exist.”