Big data advice from big names, Coca-Cola and Lastminute.com

Data protection

Big data advice from big names, Coca-Cola and Lastminute.com

Brian McKenna

Speakers at the recent Big Data Europe event in London advised businesses not to cross the creepy line and to be aware that data is rotten fruit. 

Speaking in a personal capacity as a subject matter expert, Katherine Fithen, chief privacy officer at Coca-Cola, put forward a “privacy by design approach” at the event.

In her role, Fithen is constantly on the look-out for the whereabouts of “the creepy line” in the drinks giant’s communications with customers. Coca-Cola has just passed its 50 millionth engagement on Facebook, she reported.

Listening to customers on social media is one good way to locate the creepy line, she said. 

“It is hard to predict. In the US, it is not creepy that the grocery store knows what we buy. In other cultures, it is considered creepy to track that. The use of GPS [global positioning satellite] data is not creepy for some cultures; it is for others,” said Fithen.

“You have to know truly where the data is stored – not just that it is with some suppler, but where it is geographically,” she said, commending Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) option to be able to choose a region when using its cloud services.

Coca-Cola has been on a 10-year data governance journey, with data management decision-making embedded throughout the organisation, she said. “Engagement and working together is vital.”

For more on data collection governance

As a global organisation, in 206 countries, Coca-Cola needs to respect the culturally specific sensitivities of different societies more than most. 

“You do get an appreciation of what is different. Listen to your cultures,” she advised. “If you don’t need it [data that could be deemed creepy in a particular country], don’t collect it.” 

As to where data privacy is going globally, she said a common set of privacy requirements would be welcome. In 10 years' time, Fithen hopes there will be at least standard laws and expectations that are aligned.

Bill Beckler, head of innovation at online travel company Lastminute.com, also sounded a note of caution about data collection, claiming data was "evil". Rather than being the new oil, as a common metaphor has it, data is more like rotten fruit, he said. 

Beckler illustrated his case with reference to the Battle of Britain. Luftwaffe fighter pilots routinely exaggerated their kills, or simply identified their comrades’ kills as their own. Consequently, the Royal Air Force was thought to be weaker than it was. The Germans simply had rubbish data.

Data quality professionals, in similar vein, have to contend with “folks who have an interest in fooling them”. Data analysts need to cultivate the listening skills that Coca-Cola’s Fithen referred to. “These are, however, foreign to analysts,” said Beckler.

And just as at Bletchley Park, the UK’s code-breaking centre that complemented the Luftwaffe’s terrible data collection in helping the RAF to victory, today’s corporate organisations need to find the best of the best and bring them together face to face. Test recruits, just as they did at Bletchley Park – don’t just take their word for it that they understand Bayesian statistics, concluded Beckler.


Image: Thinkstock


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