At our recent event, Austin’s local CTOs and IT Directors came together to discuss Data Democratization at a LeadersInTech community event. Among the amazing speakers that night were Joey Jablonski, VP of Data Engineering & Analytics at iHeartMedia, and Jesse Sampson, Director of Analytics/One Data at Integral Care. Both had plenty to say about bringing data to the people, so we’ve invited them to tell us more about this very current topic.
First of all, what is data democratization? In short, it’s the act of making digital information accessible to the average non-technical employee without the involvement of IT. It paves the way for ‘self-service analytics’, where workers can gather and analyse data without having to go through an IT administrator or gatekeeper.
The power of Data Democratization
In Jesse Sampson’s business, Data Democratization has the potential to make an enormous impact. Integral Care provides services for adults and children living with mental illness, substance use disorder and intellectual and developmental disabilities in Travis County, Texas. Jesse believes that Data Democratization can help the organisation improve care quality and outcomes.
“We want to be able to leverage data to improve our business and the services we provide. And Data Democratization is going to be key to that. Because my small team can’t provide insight on demand for all our employees who are out there, trying to connect the right people to the right services. That’s what I think about every day – how to get the right data into the right hands at the right time. In my business, it might make a difference to somebody’s life.”
For Joey Jablonski, it’s become equally clear that Data Democratization is essential.
“It became an issue when our IT no longer had the capacity to respond to all the requests from the rest of the business,” he explains. “In the early days, we could respond quickly, but as the number of requests went up, we realised we needed to empower the business to access data themselves and to ask their own questions. It got to the point where we were hindering their ability to make decisions.”
Joey believes that almost all organisations will face a similar challenge. And the consequences of failing to democratize data can create a damaging ‘bottleneck’, where increasing demand for insight is channelled through one small team with restricted capacity.
“People can’t move as fast in terms of getting answers from a dataset when they do it through our team,” says Jesse. “There’s a longer time to insight. And when our Data Analysts are occupied, they don’t have time to focus on long-term improvements or to build a data pipeline.”
Joey agrees that organisations ignore Data Democratization at their peril, with problems arising for naysayers now and in the future:
“In the short-term, employees can’t be responsive. They might have a gut feeling about a potential opportunity, but they can’t follow it up. Long-term, a lack of Data Democratization takes away competitiveness. All businesses need to move forward and they can’t do that without having data on tap.”
Within iHeartMedia, Data Democratization has already brought significant benefits – empowering employees and giving leaders a clearer picture of their options as they take the business forward:
“Data Democratization means the edges of the organisation can make decisions on their own. Everyone is suddenly empowered to explore data and understand what it means for their part of the business. It also means product teams can be more creative: when they have access to more data, they have more insight when designing new products. What’s more, the executive team can get answers to all their ‘what if?’ scenarios quickly. They’re more empowered to drive the business and understand its trajectory,” says Joey.
Barriers to Data Democratization
However, implementing Data Democratization is by no means an easy feat. Both Joey and Jesse stress that there are barriers to the transition.
“At iHeartMedia, sales teams and ad agencies are going through a cultural shift, now that access to data is more open,” says Joey. “Sales teams have to be more advisory, adjusting and optimising campaigns, rather than just planning. In many cases, people’s roles have changed.”
Jesse sees the same uncertainty: “There’s the job security issue,” he explains. “Some people think ‘I want to be the data master so I can’t be replaced.’” However, Jesse believes the biggest barrier to Data Democratization is ensuring people have sufficient tech skills to access datasets themselves: “That is my mission right now: I go into people’s offices and show them on their systems. I see myself as a data coach!”
Joey recommends a similar approach, with data ambassadors embedded in every team:
“They will be the central point for measurement and analysis, as well as an evangelist who trains others and helps them to upskill.”
What’s the future for Data Democratization?
As with any industry, fashions come and go in IT. But for Jesse, Data Democratization is a trend that’s set to grow.
“I see people wanting to consume datasets more and more. But there could be conflicts between the size of data and people’s ability to interact with it. I can therefore see a layer emerging between Engineering and business users: people who are a hybrid, with a skillset that will be in increasing demand over the next ten years. I can also see a point where datasets are able to recommend themselves, as the semantic web emerges and Al plays an ever-greater role.”
Data Democratization – expert tips for starts-ups
For start-ups considering the ever-evolving field of data, Joey has some expert advice and recommendations:
Make sure everyone in the organisation has access to all the data you have, while respecting relevant regulatory regimes.
Start with an open state, where data is not locked down. Assume that everyone wants to explore and ask questions.
Understand the value of your data. It’s an asset like anything else and combining it with other data can make it more valuable.
Educate your team. Enable them to use data properly and understand that it is more valuable when everyone can access it.
Many thanks to both our brilliant guest contributors. Follow Austin Fraser on social media to find the next LeadersInTech community event near you.