At BT, it's good to talk data

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

As the largest fixed and mobile operator in the UK, generating £18 billion in 2014 and serving more than 18 million customers, BT is big.

Jason Perkins, head of data and analytics architecture, BTJason Perkins, head of data and analytics architecture, said that there are 15,000 users of data within BT - roughly 15% of the business workforce. However, the aim is to increase that to 30% in line with the goal of democratising data and allowing the right people to access it. According to Perkins, this is what data transformation within BT has been about.

"We are trying to use data to make the best decisions."

“We are trying to use data to make the best decisions, learn from those and give personalised experiences to our customers, increasingly in real-time,” said Perkins.

He explained that users of BT data are on a spectrum that ranges from data analysts and citizen data scientists up to expert data scientists and cognitive machines. Data analysts are interactive, iterative and will do a lot of root cause analysis to find answers to new questions.

Those questions might be, why are inbound calls to the contact centre spiking? Or, what effect is inclement weather having on the network? “We want to give them much more powerful, modern visualisation capabilities and access to both our big data platforms and relational platforms to allow them to do that,” said Perkins.

The citizen data scientist does exploration and machine-assisted self-service, posing open questions. These practitioners are drawn from the data analyst community and typically don't have PhDs or years of experience in statistics, but with the right tools they are able to find insights. To support them, BT has deployed the Cloudera Data Science Workbench which simplifies the tools, "so we can open up to more analysts and give them more powerful tools for finding those patterns,” said Perkins.

He emphasised the need for these tools by saying that, as BT has 27 petabytes of storage - enough to hold the DNA of everyone on the planet - data users need sophisticated tools to find the insight among that data.

BT keeps its data scientists offline and in Wales to avoid them being poached

The most advanced human users of data are the expert data scientists. They do experimentation and answer big complex questions. These "unicorns", as Perkins called them, only number in the double figures and are so rare and precious that they are kept offline and in Wales. Perkins added that they are allowed nowhere near LinkedIn and are forbidden from using the words "data" or "scientist" in their job title in a bid to avoid them being poached.

The cognitive machines are able to learn and can answer adaptive questions. The machines are assisting with providing next best options and next best actions. Perkins gave the example of how they do this with personalisation of commercials on BT Vision. He said that his mum likes to watch The Great British Bake Off, so the machines make sure she is not shown ads for UFC, but for Strictly Come Dancing instead.

"We want to automate...but there's still a big part to play for humans."

“Using machines, we can make better recommendations and get away from above-the-line advertising where we give the same content to everyone and instead really personalise it and make it relevant,” said Perkins.

At BT there is a big focus on machine learning and AI, though Perkins made it clear that there will always be a role for the flesh-and-bone employees. “We want to automate all of our stuff, but there’s still a big part to play for humans. We might automate some of their roles but not most of them. It’s about working together,” he added.

Perkins has occupied a series of positions at BT, including head of business transformation, principal information architect and business intelligence design manager during the ten-plus years he has been working there. He even remembers the "Good to Talk" campaign in the mid-1990s, where a husky Bob Hoskins would pop up in short family vignettes and extol the value of telephonic verbal communication.

Mobile phone in the forestHowever, voice is becoming an ever less important part of traffic across the BT network, while data is at 80% and growing, according to Perkins. Data has become such an integral part of people’s lives that Perkins stated matter-of-factly that his teenage sons threatened to report him to social services when they were forced offline by a family holiday to the Australian outback.

"Data is everywhere."

With that in mind, Perkins’ mantra is “data is everywhere.” It might not yet be everywhere, but most people certainly want that to be the case. At BT, the idea is to leverage that data to deliver outstanding customer experience and optimise its business at the same time.

That's why Perkins said that, although BT initally stood for British Telecom, it could now stand for "big transformation".

Jason Perkins was speaking at Cloudera Sessions London.