How big data can create innovation-led entrepreneurship

A few weeks ago, my wife asked me to do a Google search for a fruit juice making machine. When I started my search, I clicked on the first link which took me to a Chinese vendor website selling industrial juice making machines and subsequently I hopped from site to site to find something closer to what she needed.

Now, in the last two or three weeks, I am constantly getting pop up adverts about fruit juice machines on any of the websites that I visit.

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So why was I seeing all these relevant adverts? That’s big data and digital advertising at play. Today, Google will know that your wife is pregnant by the internet searches she makes and Facebook will know whether your searching for a bigger house all based on the data you input in a site you visited or a post/status update made.

Several years ago, I used to wonder how big tech companies made so much money, and what their business model was? By then, I had not figured out that the money they were making was not from me doing a Google search but rather from the data they gathered from my searches to do digital advertising. I believe that we’ve all experienced this in one way or the other.

The revelation in that is every time an online product is free to users, it technically means that you are the product, if there is big data behind it.

Big data has unprecedentedly, rapidly grown with the spread of cloud infrastructure that enables companies to mine and store it. Big data is helping organizations that have adopted the big data strategy to be at the forefront of research and development which presents an opportunity to tailor make products and innovate with great insights from the market for entrepreneurs.

However, when it comes to gathering big data, one key element is that the customer needs to give their deliberate consent. That’s why a company such as Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, or any other, will provide you with pages and pages of terms and conditions of service. This is where you give these companies the rights to share your data with third parties for digital advertising.

It is worth noting that the use of personal data is however bound by customer consent and also governed by particular data protection laws in different jurisdictions. Uganda already has a data protection policy that came into law last year.

Another concept that can support innovation led Entrepreneurship when combined with Big Data, is the concept of Application Programming Interface (API).

An API is an interface where another platform can freely plug into your platform like a socket such that they can easily exchange data and communicate with each other.

At MTN, for instance, we have enabled an Open API to some vendors and innovators to access some functionalities on our Mobile Money platform. Innovators have been able to use the API in ways we never considered or thought of thereby proving maximum value to the end users. For example, it has enabled them access the market with great speed for payments and collection services.

I saw this opportunity when I was in China a few years ago. It was mind blowing how they use WeChat as a platform. WeChat is like WhatsApp but a WhatsApp at a different level. It is the alpha and omega of the life of millions of young people in China.

The young people wake up with WeChat and literally live their whole life on the application. This dependency is because WeChat has made its APIs open allowing everyday use applications to build into it.

For instance, in China, they do not have traditional mobile money as we have here in Uganda. But their mobile money is integrated and embedded into WeChat.

Let me illustrate. I went to a Starbucks for coffee; but to pay for that coffee, I had to use WeChat mobile payment. To make payment, one simply scans the QR code and proceeds with the payment.

A few hours later, I got a notification on my phone and it said there was a Starbucks outlet five hundred meters from my current location. Somehow, this platform knew I was still in China. They knew that I bought coffee at Starbucks that morning. And guess what? They offered me a voucher, so therein pushing me to visit them again.

And that is what big data is doing currently. I know people might have their concerns around it but that is where we have evolved to and this presents a great potential for many entrepreneurs to tap into.

Today if you switch off WeChat in China just for five minutes, you will have millions of people who will be lost. They will not know where the bus is or have money to pay for basic items. They will not know where their food outlet is.

So aggregated data can be a major input that can be used for public health, transport, urban planning, credit scoring facilities, and security through mapping of human patterns and needs.

I would like to invite our smart young people, entrepreneurs, and great minds in this country to think around these ideas. Let us put our untouched data into use and extract meaningful insights from it. The opportunities that these applications present are just endless.

Sometimes it could be all about plugging into the right platform or it can be about developing one, and the future will be yours.

I strongly believe that the future is on this side of the world.

This article is an opinion piece from Wim Vanhelleputte, CEO MTN Uganda.