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Is Big Data Invading Europe?

On February 9, 1964, the British invasion of America took hold when a band with a funny sounding name and strange haircuts played The Ed Sullivan Show and reached a “record-busting” audience of 73 million viewers. Nearly 50 years later, it is the Big Data phenomenon that has gained great popularity in the United States and is now threatening to cross the pond in the opposite direction.

These days, it seems like everything is Big Data this and Big Data that. When people talk about a “hug” you might want to think twice before throwing your arms around them as they might very well be talking about the next meeting of the Hadoop User Group (a.k.a. “HUG”). On a daily basis, conversations with my enthusiastic U.S. colleagues include comments like, “I need to ‘check in’ on Facebook” or “Give me a second while I send out this tweet.” (Mr. Kohl – sound familiar? No one will guess that I’m talking about you!).

Big Data has been making the rounds for well over 18 months now, largely getting its start on the West Coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Having recently attended the first dedicated Big Data event in Dusseldorf, Germany (and the first of a constant stream of such events lined up through 2012 on this side of the pond), I can certainly report that the Big Data invasion of Europe seems to be gathering a bit of momentum (at least if the vendors and event organizers have anything to say about it).

As a quick aside, do you remember the classic scene in the movie Pulp Fiction where Vince (played by John Travolta) and Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) are driving around talking about the “little differences” between the United States and Europe? Vince explains that a Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald’s in Paris is called a “Royale with Cheese” but a Big Mac is still a Big Mac. Well, it appears that Big Data is taking on the latter approach in Europe. It is not “Le Grande Data” in France or “große Datenmengen” in Germany. Everyone just calls it “Big Data” even if it sounds much cooler with a French accent as my colleague Steven Haddad recently pointed out while presenting at Forum Decideo.

Back to the matter at hand, what I find interesting so far is that here in Europe the Big Data phenomenon is not yet getting the same customer uptake or hysteria that it seems to be in the United States. For example, at my presentation in Dusseldorf I asked the audience some basic questions about who believes they are working with Big Data today. In a room of at least 50 people, not a single person raised his or her hand. For context, this is at a Big Data event!

So why on Earth is Big Data not catching on over here in Europe and spreading as fast as the new Starbucks locations that seem to be popping up everywhere? Here’s one theory. In Europe, people recognize that Big Data really isn’t something new and it is something that organizations across Europe have been handling for many years.

Take something like financial reporting, regulation and compliance. In the United States, it’s complex. However, now imagine that across 50 different countries (and not just states).  In Europe, there are different languages, currencies, governments, laws, regulations, etc. We also don’t have nice and simple five digit zip codes. Now try bringing all of that crazy data together!

In Europe, we’ve got a large concentration of completely different people and yet integration and dealing with Big Data has been happening since the 1950s when the treaty of Rome establishing the European Union (or EEC back then) was signed. I am sure they weren’t thinking Big Data back then but in the drive for political and economic stability across Europe (notice I said drive, not realisation) they created the need for data integration, integrity, reporting, etc. on a previously unimaginable scale. Now we didn’t integrate everything. For example, the Euro would be in a better place if we’d integrated the bond markets, but there’s been a huge amount of progress which the rest of the world has been copying such as IFRS, Solvency, Basel regulations, etc.

Before everyone comments saying that Big Data isn’t “old school” but really about all the new sources of data like social media and tracking sensors, part of the problem is that nobody agrees completely on the definition of Big Data. I simply believe that Big Data is a new name for an old problem. Not only that, I’d argue that most organizations have challenges dealing with terabytes of data let alone exabytes or petabytes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely excited about the potential for Big Data and said as much when I presented in Dusseldorf. I’ve seen interesting things such as credit card companies combining Foursquare and Facebook discounts with their cards and reconciling the discount when they process the bill.  

However, before everyone talks about Big Data finally making it to Europe, don’t forget that over here where the Beatles and all that “history stuff” comes from, we have been dealing with “Le Grande Data” for years. More importantly, it just wouldn’t be a fair deal if we gave the United States the Beatles and got the challenges of Big Data in return. That said, I reserve the right to change my mind should I find myself at the next Big Data conference presenting to thousands of adoring female fans!

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