How the cloud could bring big data to your local deli

Big data tools could help cafes determine what specials are best on what days.

The headline might sound like buzzword stew, but it couldn’t be any truer. Big data is red-hot right now for good reason — it really can significantly improve companies’ bottom lines — but doing it right can be hard. You have to hire people who know the right techniques for your business, and then invest in infrastructure and software to actually do the analysis. Unless, of course, someone does the work for you.

I wrote about this recently in a report for GigaOM Pro (sub req’d), in which I considered the future of firms that help companies build big data infrastructure and actually develop custom algorithms specific to their businesses. This type of high-engagement company will always have a place, but the advent of cloud-based data services and startups hiding big data behind SaaS applications means will become little more than a product feature for many companies.

On Wednesday, I realized just how deep this democratization will reach into even niche industries. A vacation-rental platform provider called Bookt announced it is bringing a machine-learning specialist on board to help customers of its InstaManager offering maximize the insights they derive from their user data. According CEO Rob Kall in a press release announcing the hire, “We intend to exploit the insights we are unlocking from our platform data, to empower our InstaManager clients in the Vacation Rental industry, with precise intelligence on individual travel shoppers in real time. ”

Added CTO Ben Strum: “[T}he next step is focused on the vast amount of data related to leads, pricing and website traffic. We are currently developing algorithms to optimize and visualize this treasure trove. Our goal is simple: Give our clients the tools they need to succeed in 2015, today in 2012.”

It might not seem too newsworthy until you consider it in the greater context. Now, relatively small companies such as Bookt feature customers Century South Beach Hotel, and can benefit from complicated analytical techniques like machine learning to maximize their bookings. And they don’t have to lift a finger, presumably — Bookt will take care of applying machine learning to their data as part of the overall service.

Heck, if your local brick-and-mortar deli, pet store or even fishing-bait shop is willing to upload its Quickbooks data or other sales and inventory information to a cloud service, they might eventually be able to reap the rewards of big data, too.

That cloud computing is bringing big data to such narrowly focused industries has been a long time coming, of course. We’ve seen it happening for some time now in the form of applications that target broader user bases, such as ad-targeting and web analytics. BloomReach, which applies everything from MapReduce to Monte Carlo simulations on its backend to optimize customers’ web content via a SaaS model, built a very impressive customer base before launching in February. Then there’s CloudFlare for security, DNAnexus for genomics and the list goes on.

The McKinsey Global Institute has famously predicted a big-data skills shortage of nearly 200,000 workers by 2018, but I’m not so certain that will hold true. For companies willing to make the leap to cloud services, there will be a lot of companies willing to make big data as easy as paying your bill every month.

Image courtesy of Richard Croft.