How to Outsource Analytics

In this series, I have been emphasizing the importance of statistical modeling in almost every article. While there are plenty of benefits of using statistical models in a more traditional sense (refer to “Why Model?”), in the days when “too much” data is the main challenge, I would dare to say that the most important function of statistical models is that they summarize complex data into simple-to-use “scores.”

In this series, I have been emphasizing the importance of statistical modeling in almost every article. While there are plenty of benefits of using statistical models in a more traditional sense (refer to “Why Model?”), in the days when “too much” data is the main challenge, I would dare to say that the most important function of statistical models is that they summarize complex data into simple-to-use “scores.”

The next important feature would be that models fill in the gaps, transforming “unknowns” to “potentials.” You see, even in the age of ubiquitous data, no one will ever know everything about everybody. For instance, out of 100,000 people you have permission to contact, only a fraction will be “known” wine enthusiasts. With modeling, we can assign scores for “likelihood of being a wine enthusiast” to everyone in the base. Sure, models are not 100 percent accurate, but I’ll take “70 percent chance of afternoon shower” over not knowing the weather forecast for the day of the company picnic.

I’ve already explained other benefits of modeling in detail earlier in this series, but if I may cut it really short, models will help marketers:

1. In deciding whom to engage, as they cannot afford to spam the world and annoy everyone who can read, and

2. In determining what to offer once they decide to engage someone, as consumers are savvier than ever and they will ignore and discard any irrelevant message, no matter how good it may look.

OK, then. I hope you are sold on this idea by now. The next question is, who is going to do all that mathematical work? In a country where jocks rule over geeks, it is clear to me that many folks are more afraid of mathematics than public speaking; which, in its own right, ranks higher than death in terms of the fear factor for many people. If I may paraphrase “Seinfeld,” many folks are figuratively more afraid of giving a eulogy than being in the coffin at a funeral. And thanks to a sub-par math education in the U.S. (and I am not joking about this, having graduated high school on foreign soil), yes, the fear of math tops them all. Scary, heh?

But that’s OK. This is a big world, and there are plenty of people who are really good at mathematics and statistics. That is why I purposefully never got into the mechanics of modeling techniques and related programming issues in this series. Instead, I have been emphasizing how to formulate questions, how to express business goals in a more logical fashion and where to invest to create analytics-ready environments. Then the next question is, “How will you find the right math geeks who can make all your dreams come true?”

If you have a plan to create an internal analytics team, there are a few things to consider before committing to that idea. Too many organizations just hire one or two statisticians, dump all the raw data onto them, and hope to God that they will figure some ways to make money with data, somehow. Good luck with that idea, as:

1. I’ve seen so many failed attempts like that (actually, I’d be shocked if it actually worked), and

2. I am sure God doesn’t micromanage statistical units.

(Similarly, I am almost certain that she doesn’t care much for football or baseball scores of certain teams, either. You don’t think God cares more for the Red Sox than the Yankees, do ya?)

The first challenge is locating good candidates. If you post any online ad for “Statistical Analysts,” you will receive a few hundred resumes per day. But the hiring process is not that simple, as you should ask the right questions to figure out who is a real deal, and who is a poser (and there are many posers out there). Even among qualified candidates with ample statistical knowledge, there are differences between the “Doers” and “Vendor Managers.” Depending on your organizational goal, you must differentiate the two.

Then the next challenge is keeping the team intact. In general, mathematicians and statisticians are not solely motivated by money; they also want constant challenges. Like any smart and creative folks, they will simply pack up and leave, if “they” determine that the job is boring. Just a couple of modeling projects a year with some rudimentary sets of data? Meh. Boring! Promises of upward mobility only work for a fraction of them, as the majority would rather deal with numbers and figures, showing no interest in managing other human beings. So, coming up with interesting and challenging projects, which will also benefit the whole organization, becomes a job in itself. If there are not enough challenges, smart ones will quit on you first. Then they need constant mentoring, as even the smartest statisticians will not know everything about challenges associated with marketing, target audiences and the business world, in general. (If you stumble into a statistician who is even remotely curious about how her salary is paid for, start with her.)

Further, you would need to invest to set up an analytical environment, as well. That includes software, hardware and other supporting staff. Toolsets are becoming much cheaper, but they are not exactly free yet. In fact, some famous statistical software, such as SAS, could be quite expensive year after year, although there are plenty of alternatives now. And they need an “analytics-ready” data environment, as I emphasized countless times in this series (refer to “Chicken or the Egg? Data or Analytics?” and “Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs”). Such data preparation work is not for statisticians, and most of them are not even good at cleaning up dirty data, anyway. That means you will need different types of developers/programmers on the analytics team. I pointed out that analytical projects call for a cohesive team, not some super-duper analyst who can do it all (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist”).

By now you would say “Jeez Louise, enough already,” as all this is just too much to manage to build just a few models. Suddenly, outsourcing may sound like a great idea. Then you would realize there are many things to consider when outsourcing analytical work.

First, where would you go? Everyone in the data industry and their cousins claim that they can take care of analytics. But in reality, it is a scary place where many who have “analytics” in their taglines do not even touch “predictive analytics.”

Analytics is a word that is abused as much as “Big Data,” so we really need to differentiate them. “Analytics” may mean:

  • Business Intelligence (BI) Reporting: This is mostly about the present, such as the display of key success metrics and dashboard reporting. While it is very important to know about the current state of business, much of so-called “analytics” unfortunately stops right here. Yes, it is good to have a dashboard in your car now, but do you know where you should be going?
  • Descriptive Analytics: This is about how the targets “look.” Common techniques such as profiling, segmentation and clustering fall under this category. These techniques are mainly for describing the target audience to enhance and optimize messages to them. But using these segments as a selection mechanism is not recommended, while many dare to do exactly that (more on this subject in future articles).
  • Predictive Modeling: This is about answering the questions about the future. Who would be more likely to behave certain ways? What communication channels will be most effective for whom? How much is the potential spending level of a prospect? Who is more likely to be a loyal and profitable customer? What are their preferences? Response models, various of types of cloning models, value models, and revenue models, attrition models, etc. all fall under this category, and they require hardcore statistical skills. Plus, as I emphasized earlier, these model scores compact large amounts of complex data into nice bite-size packages.
  • Optimization: This is mostly about budget allocation and attribution. Marketing agencies (or media buyers) generally deal with channel optimization and spending analysis, at times using econometrics models. This type of statistical work calls for different types of expertise, but many still insist on calling it simply “analytics.”

Let’s say that for the purpose of customer-level targeting and personalization, we decided to outsource the “predictive” modeling projects. What are our options?

We may consider:

  • Individual Consultants: In-house consultants are dedicated to your business for the duration of the contract, guaranteeing full access like an employee. But they are there for you only temporarily, with one foot out the door all the time. And when they do leave, all the knowledge walks away with them. Depending on the rate, the costs can add up.
  • Standalone Analytical Service Providers: Analytical work is all they do, so you get focused professionals with broad technical and institutional knowledge. Many of them are entrepreneurs, but that may work against you, as they could often be understaffed and stretched thin. They also tend to charge for every little step, with not many freebies. They are generally open to use any type of data, but the majority of them do not have secure sources of third-party data, which could be essential for certain types of analytics involving prospecting.
  • Database Service Providers: Almost all data compilers and brokers have statistical units, as they need to fill in the gap within their data assets with statistical techniques. (You didn’t think that they knew everyone’s income or age, did you?) For that reason, they have deep knowledge in all types of data, as well as in many industry verticals. They provide a one-stop shop environment with deep resource pools and a variety of data processing capabilities. However, they may not be as agile as smaller analytical shops, and analytics units may be tucked away somewhere within large and complex organizations. They also tend to emphasize the use of their own data, as after all, their main cash cows are their data assets.
  • Direct Marketing Agencies: Agencies are very strategic, as they touch all aspects of marketing and control creative processes through segmentation. Many large agencies boast full-scale analytical units, capable of all types of analytics that I explained earlier. But some agencies have very small teams, stretched really thin—just barely handling the reporting aspect, not any advanced analytics. Some just admit that predictive analytics is not part of their core competencies, and they may outsource such projects (not that it is a bad thing).

As you can see here, there is no clear-cut answer to “with whom you should you work.” Basically, you will need to check out all types of analysts and service providers to determine the partner best suitable for your long- and short-term business purposes, not just analytical goals. Often, many marketers just go with the lowest bidder. But pricing is just one of many elements to be considered. Here, allow me to introduce “10 Essential Items to Consider When Outsourcing Analytics.”

1. Consulting Capabilities: I put this on the top of the list, as being a translator between the marketing and the technology world is the most important differentiator (refer to “How to Be a Good Data Scientist”). They must understand the business goals and marketing needs, prescribe suitable solutions, convert such goals into mathematical expressions and define targets, making the best of available data. If they lack strategic vision to set up the data roadmap, statistical knowledge alone will not be enough to achieve the goals. And such business goals vary greatly depending on the industry, channel usage and related success metrics. Good consultants always ask questions first, while sub-par ones will try to force-fit marketers’ goals into their toolsets and methodologies.

Translating marketing goals into specific courses of action is a skill in itself. A good analytical partner should be capable of building a data roadmap (not just statistical steps) with a deep understanding of the business impact of resultant models. They should be able to break down larger goals into smaller steps, creating proper phased approaches. The plan may call for multiple models, all kinds of pre- and post-selection rules, or even external data acquisition, while remaining sensitive to overall costs.

The target definition is the core of all these considerations, which requires years of experience and industry knowledge. Simply, the wrong or inadequate targeting decision leads to disastrous results, no matter how sound the mathematical work is (refer to “Art of Targeting”).

Another important quality of a good analytical partner is the ability to create usefulness out of seemingly chaotic and unstructured data environments. Modeling is not about waiting for the perfect set of data, but about making the best of available data. In many modeling bake-offs, the winners are often decided by the creative usage of provided data, not just statistical techniques.

Finally, the consultative approach is important, as models do not exist in a vacuum, but they have to fit into the marketing engine. Be aware of the ones who want to change the world around their precious algorithms, as they are geeks not strategists. And the ones who understand the entire marketing cycle will give advice on what the next phase should be, as marketing efforts must be perpetual, not transient.

So, how will you find consultants? Ask the following questions:

  • Are they “listening” to you?
  • Can they repeat “your” goals in their own words?
  • Do their roadmaps cover both short- and long-term goals?
  • Are they confident enough to correct you?
  • Do they understand “non-statistical” elements in marketing?
  • Have they “been there, done that” for real, or just in theories?

2. Data Processing Capabilities: I know that some people look down upon the word “processing.” But data manipulation is the most important key step “before” any type of advanced analytics even begins. Simply, “garbage-in, garbage out.” And unfortunately, most datasets are completely unsuitable for analytics and modeling. In general, easily more than 80 percent of model development time goes into “fixing” the data, as most are unstructured and unrefined. I have been repeatedly emphasizing the importance of a “model-ready” (or “analytics-ready”) environment for that reason.

However, the reality dictates that the majority of databases are indeed NOT model-ready, and most of them are not even close to it. Well, someone has to clean up the mess. And in this data business, the last one who touches the dataset becomes responsible for all the errors and mistakes made to it thus far. I know it is not fair, but that is why we need to look at the potential partner’s ability to handle large and really messy data, not just the statistical savviness displayed in glossy presentations.

Yes, that dirty work includes data conversion, edit/hygiene, categorization/tagging, data summarization and variable creation, encompassing all kinds of numeric, character and freeform data (refer to “Beyond RFM Data” and “Freeform Data Aren’t Exactly Free”). It is not the most glorious part of this business, but data consistency is the key to successful implementation of any advanced analytics. So, if a model-ready environment is not available, someone had better know how to make the best of whatever is given. I have seen too many meltdowns in “before” and “after” modeling steps due to inconsistencies in databases.

So, grill the candidates with the following questions:

  • If they support file conversions, edit, categorization and summarization
  • How big of a dataset is too big, and how many files/tables are too many for them
  • How much free-form data are too much for them
  • Ask for sample model variables that they have created in the past

3. Track Records in the Industry: It can be argued that industry knowledge is even more crucial for the success than statistical know-how, as nuances are often “Lost in Translation” without relevant industry experience. In fact, some may not even be able to carry on a proper conversation with a client without it, leading to all kinds of wrong assumptions. I have seen a case where “real” rocket scientists messed up models for credit card campaigns.

The No. 1 reason why industry experience is important is everyone’s success metrics are unique. Just to name a few, financial services (banking, credit card, insurance, investment, etc.), travel and hospitality, entertainment, packaged goods, online and offline retail, catalogs, publication, telecommunications/utilities, non-profit and political organizations all call for different types of analytics and models, as their business models and the way they interact with target audiences are vastly different. For example, building a model (or a database, for that matter) for businesses where they hand over merchandise “before” they collect money is fundamentally different than the ones where exchange happens simultaneously. Even a simple concept of payment date or transaction date cannot be treated the same way. For retailers, recent dates could be better for business, but for subscription business, older dates may carry more weight. And these are just some examples with “dates,” before touching any dollar figures or other fun stuff.

Then the job gets even more complicated, if we further divide all of these industries by B-to-B vs. B-to-C, where available data do not even look similar. On top of that, divisional ROI metrics may be completely different, and even terminology and culture may play a role in all of this. When you are a consultant, you really don’t want to stop the flow of a meeting to clarify some unfamiliar acronyms, as you are supposed to know them all.

So, always demand specific industry references and examine client roasters, if allowed. (Many clients specifically ask vendors not to use their names as references.) Basically, watch out for the ones who push one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter solutions. You deserve way more than that.

4. Types of Models Supported: Speaking of cookie-cutter stuff, we need to be concerned with types of models that the outsourcing partner would support. Sure, nobody employs every technique, and no one can be good at everything. But we need to watch out for the “One-trick Ponies.”

This could be a tricky issue, as we are going into a more technical domain. Plus, marketers should not self-prescribe with specific techniques, instead of clearly stating their business goals (refer to “Marketing and IT; Cats and Dogs”). Some of the modeling goals are:

  • Rank and select prospect names
  • Lead scoring
  • Cross-sell/upsell
  • Segment the universe for messaging strategy
  • Pinpoint the attrition point
  • Assign lifetime values for prospects and customers
  • Optimize media/channel spending
  • Create new product packages
  • Detect fraud
  • Etc.

Unless you have successfully dealt with the outsourcing partner in the past (or you have a degree in statistics), do not blurt out words like Neural-net, CHAID, Cluster Analysis, Multiple Regression, Discriminant Function Analysis, etc. That would be like demanding specific medication before your new doctor even asks about your symptoms. The key is meeting your business goals, not fulfilling buzzwords. Let them present their methodology “after” the goal discussion. Nevertheless, see if the potential partner is pushing one or two specific techniques or solutions all the time.

5. Speed of Execution: In modern marketing, speed to action is the king. Speed wins, and speed gains respect. However, when it comes to modeling or other advanced analytics, you may be shocked by the wide range of time estimates provided by each outsourcing vendor. To be fair they are covering themselves, mainly because they have no idea what kind of messy data they will receive. As I mentioned earlier, pre-model data preparation and manipulation are critical components, and they are the most time-consuming part of all; especially when available data are in bad shape. Post-model scoring, audit and usage support may elongate the timeline. The key is to differentiate such pre- and post-modeling processes in the time estimate.

Even for pure modeling elements, time estimates vary greatly, depending on the complexity of assignments. Surely, a simple cloning model with basic demographic data would be much easier to execute than the ones that involve ample amounts of transaction- and event-level data, coming from all types of channels. If time-series elements are added, it will definitely be more complex. Typical clustering work is known to take longer than regression models with clear target definitions. If multiple models are required for the project, it will obviously take more time to finish the whole job.

Now, the interesting thing about building a model is that analysts don’t really finish it, but they just run out of time—much like the way marketers work on PowerPoint presentations. The commonality is that we can basically tweak models or decks forever, but we have to stop at some point.

However, with all kinds of automated tools and macros, model development time has decreased dramatically in past decades. We really came a long way since the first application of statistical techniques to marketing, and no one should be quoting a 1980s timeline in this century. But some still do. I know vendors are trained to follow the guideline “always under-promise and over-deliver,” but still.

An interesting aspect of this dilemma is that we can negotiate the timeline by asking for simpler and less sophisticated versions with diminished accuracy. If, hypothetically, it takes a week to be 98 percent accurate, but it only takes a day to be 90 percent accurate, what would you pick? That should be the business decision.

So, what is a general guideline? Again, it really depends on many factors, but allow me to share a version of it:

  • Pre-modeling Processing

– Data Conversions: from half a day to weeks

– Data Append/Enhancement: between overnight and two days

– Data Edit and Summarization: Data-dependent

  • Modeling: Ranges from half a day to weeks

– Depends on type, number of models and complexity

  • Scoring: from half a day to one week

– Mainly depends on number of records and state of the database to be scored

I know these are wide ranges, but watch out for the ones that routinely quote 30 days or more for simple clone models. They may not know what they are doing, or worse, they may be some mathematical perfectionists who don’t understand the marketing needs.

6. Pricing Structure: Some marketers would put this on top of the checklist, or worse, use the pricing factor as the only criterion. Obviously, I disagree. (Full disclosure: I have been on the service side of the fence during my entire career.) Yes, every project must make an economic sense in the end, but the budget should not and cannot be the sole deciding factor in choosing an outsourcing partner. There are many specialists under famous brand names who command top dollars, and then there are many data vendors who throw in “free” models, disrupting the ecosystem. Either way, one should not jump to conclusions too fast, as there is no free lunch, after all. In any case, I strongly recommend that no one should start the meeting with pricing questions (hence, this article). When you get to the pricing part, ask what the price includes, as the analytical journey could be a series of long and winding roads. Some of the biggest factors that need to be considered are:

  • Multiple Model Discounts—Less for second or third models within a project?
  • Pre-developed (off-the-shelf) Models—These can be “much” cheaper than custom models, while not custom-fitted.
  • Acquisition vs. CRM—Employing client-specific variables certainly increases the cost.
  • Regression Models vs. Other Types—At times, types of techniques may affect the price.
  • Clustering and Segmentations—They are generally priced much higher than target-specific models.

Again, it really depends on the complexity factor more than anything else, and the pre- and post-modeling process must be estimated and priced separately. Non-modeling charges often add up fast, and you should ask for unit prices and minimum charges for each step.

Scoring charges in time can be expensive, too, so negotiate for discounts for routine scoring of the same models. Some may offer all-inclusive package pricing for everything. The important thing is that you must be consistent with the checklist when shopping around with multiple candidates.

7. Documentation: When you pay for a custom model (not pre-developed, off-the-shelf ones), you get to own the algorithm. Because algorithms are not tangible items, the knowledge is to be transformed in model documents. Beware of the ones who offer “black-box” solutions with comments like, “Oh, it will work, so trust us.”

Good model documents must include the following, at the minimum:

  • Target and Comparison Universe Definitions: What was the target variable (or “dependent” variable) and how was it defined? How was the comparison universe defined? Was there any “pre-selection” for either of the universes? These are the most important factors in any model—even more than the mechanics of the model itself.
  • List of Variables: What are the “independent” variables? How were they transformed or binned? From where did they originate? Often, these model variables describe the nature of the model, and they should make intuitive sense.
  • Model Algorithms: What is the actual algorithm? What are the assigned weight for each independent variable?
  • Gains Chart: We need to examine potential effectiveness of the model. What are the “gains” for each model group, from top to bottom (e.g., 320 percent gain at the top model group in comparison to the whole universe)? How fast do such gains decrease as we move down the scale? How do the gains factors compare against the validation sample? A graphic representation would be nice, too.

For custom models, it is customary to have a formal model presentation, full documentation and scoring script in designated programming languages. In addition, if client files are provided, ask for a waterfall report that details input and output counts of each step. After the model scoring, it is also customary for the vendor to provide a scored universe count by model group. You will be shocked to find out that many so-called analytical vendors do not provide thorough documentation. Therefore, it is recommended to ask for sample documents upfront.

8. Scoring Validation: Models are built and presented properly, but the job is not done until the models are applied to the universe from which the names are ranked and selected for campaigns. I have seen too many major meltdowns at this stage. Simply, it is one thing to develop models with a few hundred thousand record samples, but it is quite another to apply the algorithm to millions of records. I am not saying that the scoring job always falls onto the developers, as you may have an internal team or a separate vendor for such ongoing processes. But do not let the model developer completely leave the building until everything checks out.

The model should have been validated against the validation sample by then, but live scoring may reveal all kinds of inconsistencies. You may also want to back-test the algorithms with past campaign results, as well. In short, many things go wrong “after” the modeling steps. When I hear customers complaining about models, I often find that the modeling is the only part that was done properly, and “before” and “after” steps were all messed up. Further, even machines misunderstand each other, as any differences in platform or scripting language may cause discrepancies. Or, maybe there was no technical error, but missing values may have caused inconsistencies (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful”). Nonetheless, the model developers would have the best insight as to what could have gone wrong, so make sure that they are available for questions after models are presented and delivered.

9. Back-end Analysis: Good analytics is all about applying learnings from past campaigns—good or bad—to new iterations of efforts. We often call it “closed-loop marketing—while many marketers often neglect to follow up. Any respectful analytics shop must be aware of it, while they may classify such work separately from modeling or other analytical projects. At the minimum, you need to check out if they even offer such services. In fact, so-called “match-back analysis” is not as simple as just matching campaign files against responders in this omnichannel environment. When many channels are employed at the same time, allocation of credit (i.e., “what worked?”) may call for all kinds of business rules or even dedicated models.

While you are at it, ask for a cheaper version of “canned” reports, as well, as custom back-end analysis can be even more costly than the modeling job itself, over time. Pre-developed reports may not include all the ROI metrics that you’re looking for (e.g., open, clickthrough, conversion rates, plus revenue and orders-per-mailed, per order, per display, per email, per conversion. etc.). So ask for sample reports upfront.

If you start breaking down all these figures by data source, campaign, time series, model group, offer, creative, targeting criteria, channel, ad server, publisher, keywords, etc., it can be unwieldy really fast. So contain yourself, as no one can understand 100-page reports, anyway. See if the analysts can guide you with such planning, as well. Lastly, if you are so into ROI analysis, get ready to share the “cost” side of the equation with the selected partner. Some jobs are on the marketers.

10. Ongoing Support: Models have a finite shelf life, as all kinds of changes happen in the real world. Seasonality may be a factor, or the business model or strategy may have changed. Fluctuations in data availability and quality further complicate the matter. Basically assumptions like “all things being equal” only happen in textbooks, so marketers must plan for periodic review of models and business rules.

A sure sign of trouble is decreasing effectiveness of models. When in doubt, consult the developers and they may recommend a re-fit or complete re-development of models. Quarterly reviews would be ideal, but if the cost becomes an issue, start with 6-month or yearly reviews, but never go past more than a year without any review. Some vendors may offer discounts for redevelopment, so ask for the price quote upfront.

I know this is a long list of things to check, but picking the right partner is very important, as it often becomes a long-term relationship. And you may find it strange that I didn’t even list “technical capabilities” at all. That is because:

1. Many marketers are not equipped to dig deep into the technical realm anyway, and

2. The difference between the most mathematically sound models and the ones from the opposite end of the spectrum is not nearly as critical as other factors I listed in this article.

In other words, even the worst model in the bake-off would be much better than no model, if these other business criterion are well-considered. So, happy shopping with this list, and I hope you find the right partner. Employing analytics is not an option when living in the sea of data.

Not All Databases Are Created Equal

Not all databases are created equal. No kidding. That is like saying that not all cars are the same, or not all buildings are the same. But somehow, “judging” databases isn’t so easy. First off, there is no tangible “tire” that you can kick when evaluating databases or data sources. Actually, kicking the tire is quite useless, even when you are inspecting an automobile. Can you really gauge the car’s handling, balance, fuel efficiency, comfort, speed, capacity or reliability based on how it feels when you kick “one” of the tires? I can guarantee that your toes will hurt if you kick it hard enough, and even then you won’t be able to tell the tire pressure within 20 psi. If you really want to evaluate an automobile, you will have to sign some papers and take it out for a spin (well, more than one spin, but you know what I mean). Then, how do we take a database out for a spin? That’s when the tool sets come into play.

Not all databases are created equal. No kidding. That is like saying that not all cars are the same, or not all buildings are the same. But somehow, “judging” databases isn’t so easy. First off, there is no tangible “tire” that you can kick when evaluating databases or data sources. Actually, kicking the tire is quite useless, even when you are inspecting an automobile. Can you really gauge the car’s handling, balance, fuel efficiency, comfort, speed, capacity or reliability based on how it feels when you kick “one” of the tires? I can guarantee that your toes will hurt if you kick it hard enough, and even then you won’t be able to tell the tire pressure within 20 psi. If you really want to evaluate an automobile, you will have to sign some papers and take it out for a spin (well, more than one spin, but you know what I mean). Then, how do we take a database out for a spin? That’s when the tool sets come into play.

However, even when the database in question is attached to analytical, visualization, CRM or drill-down tools, it is not so easy to evaluate it completely, as such practice reveals only a few aspects of a database, hardly all of them. That is because such tools are like window treatments of a building, through which you may look into the database. Imagine a building inspector inspecting a building without ever entering it. Would you respect the opinion of the inspector who just parks his car outside the building, looks into the building through one or two windows, and says, “Hey, we’re good to go”? No way, no sir. No one should judge a book by its cover.

In the age of the Big Data (you should know by now that I am not too fond of that word), everything digitized is considered data. And data reside in databases. And databases are supposed be designed to serve specific purposes, just like buildings and cars are. Although many modern databases are just mindless piles of accumulated data, granted that the database design is decent and functional, we can still imagine many different types of databases depending on the purposes and their contents.

Now, most of the Big Data discussions these days are about the platform, environment, or tool sets. I’m sure you heard or read enough about those, so let me boldly skip all that and their related techie words, such as Hadoop, MongoDB, Pig, Python, MapReduce, Java, SQL, PHP, C++, SAS or anything related to that elusive “cloud.” Instead, allow me to show you the way to evaluate databases—or data sources—from a business point of view.

For businesspeople and decision-makers, it is not about NoSQL vs. RDB; it is just about the usefulness of the data. And the usefulness comes from the overall content and database management practices, not just platforms, tool sets and buzzwords. Yes, tool sets are important, but concert-goers do not care much about the types and brands of musical instruments that are being used; they just care if the music is entertaining or not. Would you be impressed with a mediocre guitarist just because he uses the same brand of guitar that his guitar hero uses? Nope. Likewise, the usefulness of a database is not about the tool sets.

In my past column, titled “Big Data Must Get Smaller,” I explained that there are three major types of data, with which marketers can holistically describe their target audience: (1) Descriptive Data, (2) Transaction/Behavioral Data, and (3) Attitudinal Data. In short, if you have access to all three dimensions of the data spectrum, you will have a more complete portrait of customers and prospects. Because I already went through that subject in-depth, let me just say that such types of data are not the basis of database evaluation here, though the contents should be on top of the checklist to meet business objectives.

In addition, throughout this series, I have been repeatedly emphasizing that the database and analytics management philosophy must originate from business goals. Basically, the business objective must dictate the course for analytics, and databases must be designed and optimized to support such analytical activities. Decision-makers—and all involved parties, for that matter—suffer a great deal when that hierarchy is reversed. And unfortunately, that is the case in many organizations today. Therefore, let me emphasize that the evaluation criteria that I am about to introduce here are all about usefulness for decision-making processes and supporting analytical activities, including predictive analytics.

Let’s start digging into key evaluation criteria for databases. This list would be quite useful when examining internal and external data sources. Even databases managed by professional compilers can be examined through these criteria. The checklist could also be applicable to investors who are about to acquire a company with data assets (as in, “Kick the tire before you buy it.”).

1. Depth
Let’s start with the most obvious one. What kind of information is stored and maintained in the database? What are the dominant data variables in the database, and what is so unique about them? Variety of information matters for sure, and uniqueness is often related to specific business purposes for which databases are designed and created, along the lines of business data, international data, specific types of behavioral data like mobile data, categorical purchase data, lifestyle data, survey data, movement data, etc. Then again, mindless compilation of random data may not be useful for any business, regardless of the size.

Generally, data dictionaries (lack of it is a sure sign of trouble) reveal the depth of the database, but we need to dig deeper, as transaction and behavioral data are much more potent predictors and harder to manage in comparison to demographic and firmographic data, which are very much commoditized already. Likewise, Lifestyle variables that are derived from surveys that may have been conducted a long time ago are far less valuable than actual purchase history data, as what people say they do and what they actually do are two completely different things. (For more details on the types of data, refer to the second half of “Big Data Must Get Smaller.”)

Innovative ideas should not be overlooked, as data packaging is often very important in the age of information overflow. If someone or some company transformed many data points into user-friendly formats using modeling or other statistical techniques (imagine pre-developed categorical models targeting a variety of human behaviors, or pre-packaged segmentation or clustering tools), such effort deserves extra points, for sure. As I emphasized numerous times in this series, data must be refined to provide answers to decision-makers. That is why the sheer size of the database isn’t so impressive, and the depth of the database is not just about the length of the variable list and the number of bytes that go along with it. So, data collectors, impress us—because we’ve seen a lot.

2. Width
No matter how deep the information goes, if the coverage is not wide enough, the database becomes useless. Imagine well-organized, buyer-level POS (Point of Service) data coming from actual stores in “real-time” (though I am sick of this word, as it is also overused). The data go down to SKU-level details and payment methods. Now imagine that the data in question are collected in only two stores—one in Michigan, and the other in Delaware. This, by the way, is not a completely made -p story, and I faced similar cases in the past. Needless to say, we had to make many assumptions that we didn’t want to make in order to make the data useful, somehow. And I must say that it was far from ideal.

Even in the age when data are collected everywhere by every device, no dataset is ever complete (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful“). The limitations are everywhere. It could be about brand, business footprint, consumer privacy, data ownership, collection methods, technical limitations, distribution of collection devices, and the list goes on. Yes, Apple Pay is making a big splash in the news these days. But would you believe that the data collected only through Apple iPhone can really show the overall consumer trend in the country? Maybe in the future, but not yet. If you can pick only one credit card type to analyze, such as American Express for example, would you think that the result of the study is free from any bias? No siree. We can easily assume that such analysis would skew toward the more affluent population. I am not saying that such analyses are useless. And in fact, they can be quite useful if we understand the limitations of data collection and the nature of the bias. But the point is that the coverage matters.

Further, even within multisource databases in the market, the coverage should be examined variable by variable, simply because some data points are really difficult to obtain even by professional data compilers. For example, any information that crosses between the business and the consumer world is sparsely populated in many cases, and the “occupation” variable remains mostly blank or unknown on the consumer side. Similarly, any data related to young children is difficult or even forbidden to collect, so a seemingly simple variable, such as “number of children,” is left unknown for many households. Automobile data used to be abundant on a household level in the past, but a series of laws made sure that the access to such data is forbidden for many users. Again, don’t be impressed with the existence of some variables in the data menu, but look into it to see “how much” is available.

3. Accuracy
In any scientific analysis, a “false positive” is a dangerous enemy. In fact, they are worse than not having the information at all. Many folks just assume that any data coming out a computer is accurate (as in, “Hey, the computer says so!”). But data are not completely free from human errors.

Sheer accuracy of information is hard to measure, especially when the data sources are unique and rare. And the errors can happen in any stage, from data collection to imputation. If there are other known sources, comparing data from multiple sources is one way to ensure accuracy. Watching out for fluctuations in distributions of important variables from update to update is another good practice.

Nonetheless, the overall quality of the data is not just up to the person or department who manages the database. Yes, in this business, the last person who touches the data is responsible for all the mistakes that were made to it up to that point. However, when the garbage goes in, the garbage comes out. So, when there are errors, everyone who touched the database at any point must share in the burden of guilt.

Recently, I was part of a project that involved data collected from retail stores. We ran all kinds of reports and tallies to check the data, and edited many data values out when we encountered obvious errors. The funniest one that I saw was the first name “Asian” and the last name “Tourist.” As an openly Asian-American person, I was semi-glad that they didn’t put in “Oriental Tourist” (though I still can’t figure out who decided that word is for objects, but not people). We also found names like “No info” or “Not given.” Heck, I saw in the news that this refugee from Afghanistan (he was a translator for the U.S. troops) obtained a new first name as he was granted an entry visa, “Fnu.” That would be short for “First Name Unknown” as the first name in his new passport. Welcome to America, Fnu. Compared to that, “Andolini” becoming “Corleone” on Ellis Island is almost cute.

Data entry errors are everywhere. When I used to deal with data files from banks, I found that many last names were “Ira.” Well, it turned out that it wasn’t really the customers’ last names, but they all happened to have opened “IRA” accounts. Similarly, movie phone numbers like 777-555-1234 are very common. And fictitious names, such as “Mickey Mouse,” or profanities that are not fit to print are abundant, as well. At least fake email addresses can be tested and eliminated easily, and erroneous addresses can be corrected by time-tested routines, too. So, yes, maintaining a clean database is not so easy when people freely enter whatever they feel like. But it is not an impossible task, either.

We can also train employees regarding data entry principles, to a certain degree. (As in, “Do not enter your own email address,” “Do not use bad words,” etc.). But what about user-generated data? Search and kill is the only way to do it, and the job would never end. And the meta-table for fictitious names would grow longer and longer. Maybe we should just add “Thor” and “Sponge Bob” to that Mickey Mouse list, while we’re at it. Yet, dealing with this type of “text” data is the easy part. If the database manager in charge is not lazy, and if there is a bit of a budget allowed for data hygiene routines, one can avoid sending emails to “Dear Asian Tourist.”

Numeric errors are much harder to catch, as numbers do not look wrong to human eyes. That is when comparison to other known sources becomes important. If such examination is not possible on a granular level, then median value and distribution curves should be checked against historical transaction data or known public data sources, such as U.S. Census Data in the case of demographic information.

When it’s about the companies’ own data, follow your instincts and get rid of data that look too good or too bad to be true. We all can afford to lose a few records in our databases, and there is nothing wrong with deleting the “outliers” with extreme values. Erroneous names, like “No Information,” may be attached to a seven-figure lifetime spending sum, and you know that can’t be right.

The main takeaways are: (1) Never trust the data just because someone bothered to store them in computers, and (2) Constantly look for bad data in reports and listings, at times using old-fashioned eye-balling methods. Computers do not know what is “bad,” until we specifically tell them what bad data are. So, don’t give up, and keep at it. And if it’s about someone else’s data, insist on data tallies and data hygiene stats.

4. Recency
Outdated data are really bad for prediction or analysis, and that is a different kind of badness. Many call it a “Data Atrophy” issue, as no matter how fresh and accurate a data point may be today, it will surely deteriorate over time. Yes, data have a finite shelf-life, too. Let’s say that you obtained a piece of information called “Golf Interest” on an individual level. That information could be coming from a survey conducted a long time ago, or some golf equipment purchase data from a while ago. In any case, someone who is attached to that flag may have stopped shopping for new golf equipment, as he doesn’t play much anymore. Without a proper database update and a constant feed of fresh data, irrelevant data will continue to drive our decisions.

The crazy thing is that, the harder it is to obtain certain types of data—such as transaction or behavioral data—the faster they will deteriorate. By nature, transaction or behavioral data are time-sensitive. That is why it is important to install time parameters in databases for behavioral data. If someone purchased a new golf driver, when did he do that? Surely, having bought a golf driver in 2009 (“Hey, time for a new driver!”) is different from having purchased it last May.

So-called “Hot Line Names” literally cease to be hot after two to three months, or in some cases much sooner. The evaporation period maybe different for different product types, as one may stay longer in the market for an automobile than for a new printer. Part of the job of a data scientist is to defer the expiration date of data, finding leads or prospects who are still “warm,” or even “lukewarm,” with available valid data. But no matter how much statistical work goes into making the data “look” fresh, eventually the models will cease to be effective.

For decision-makers who do not make real-time decisions, a real-time database update could be an expensive solution. But the databases must be updated constantly (I mean daily, weekly, monthly or even quarterly). Otherwise, someone will eventually end up making a wrong decision based on outdated data.

5. Consistency
No matter how much effort goes into keeping the database fresh, not all data variables will be updated or filled in consistently. And that is the reality. The interesting thing is that, especially when using them for advanced analytics, we can still provide decent predictions if the data are consistent. It may sound crazy, but even not-so-accurate-data can be used in predictive analytics, if they are “consistently” wrong. Modeling is developing an algorithm that differentiates targets and non-targets, and if the descriptive variables are “consistently” off (or outdated, like census data from five years ago) on both sides, the model can still perform.

Conversely, if there is a huge influx of a new type of data, or any drastic change in data collection or in a business model that supports such data collection, all bets are off. We may end up predicting such changes in business models or in methodologies, not the differences in consumer behavior. And that is one of the worst kinds of errors in the predictive business.

Last month, I talked about dealing with missing data (refer to “Missing Data Can Be Meaningful“), and I mentioned that data can be inferred via various statistical techniques. And such data imputation is OK, as long as it returns consistent values. I have seen so many so-called professionals messing up popular models, like “Household Income,” from update to update. If the inferred values jump dramatically due to changes in the source data, there is no amount of effort that can save the targeting models that employed such variables, short of re-developing them.

That is why a time-series comparison of important variables in databases is so important. Any changes of more than 5 percent in distribution of variables when compared to the previous update should be investigated immediately. If you are dealing with external data vendors, insist on having a distribution report of key variables for every update. Consistency of data is more important in predictive analytics than sheer accuracy of data.

6. Connectivity
As I mentioned earlier, there are many types of data. And the predictive power of data multiplies as different types of data get to be used together. For instance, demographic data, which is quite commoditized, still plays an important role in predictive modeling, even when dominant predictors are behavioral data. It is partly because no one dataset is complete, and because different types of data play different roles in algorithms.

The trouble is that many modern datasets do not share any common matching keys. On the demographic side, we can easily imagine using PII (Personally Identifiable Information), such as name, address, phone number or email address for matching. Now, if we want to add some transaction data to the mix, we would need some match “key” (or a magic decoder ring) by which we can link it to the base records. Unfortunately, many modern databases completely lack PII, right from the data collection stage. The result is that such a data source would remain in a silo. It is not like all is lost in such a situation, as they can still be used for trend analysis. But to employ multisource data for one-to-one targeting, we really need to establish the connection among various data worlds.

Even if the connection cannot be made to household, individual or email levels, I would not give up entirely, as we can still target based on IP addresses, which may lead us to some geographic denominations, such as ZIP codes. I’d take ZIP-level targeting anytime over no targeting at all, even though there are many analytical and summarization steps required for that (more on that subject in future articles).

Not having PII or any hard matchkey is not a complete deal-breaker, but the maneuvering space for analysts and marketers decreases significantly without it. That is why the existence of PII, or even ZIP codes, is the first thing that I check when looking into a new data source. I would like to free them from isolation.

7. Delivery Mechanisms
Users judge databases based on visualization or reporting tool sets that are attached to the database. As I mentioned earlier, that is like judging the entire building based just on the window treatments. But for many users, that is the reality. After all, how would a casual user without programming or statistical background would even “see” the data? Through tool sets, of course.

But that is the only one end of it. There are so many types of platforms and devices, and the data must flow through them all. The important point is that data is useless if it is not in the hands of decision-makers through the device of their choice, at the right time. Such flow can be actualized via API feed, FTP, or good, old-fashioned batch installments, and no database should stay too far away from the decision-makers. In my earlier column, I emphasized that data players must be good at (1) Collection, (2) Refinement, and (3) Delivery (refer to “Big Data is Like Mining Gold for a Watch—Gold Can’t Tell Time“). Delivering the answers to inquirers properly closes one iteration of information flow. And they must continue to flow to the users.

8. User-Friendliness
Even when state-of-the-art (I apologize for using this cliché) visualization, reporting or drill-down tool sets are attached to the database, if the data variables are too complicated or not intuitive, users will get frustrated and eventually move away from it. If that happens after pouring a sick amount of money into any data initiative, that would be a shame. But it happens all the time. In fact, I am not going to name names here, but I saw some ridiculously hard to understand data dictionary from a major data broker in the U.S.; it looked like the data layout was designed for robots by the robots. Please. Data scientists must try to humanize the data.

This whole Big Data movement has a momentum now, and in the interest of not killing it, data players must make every aspect of this data business easy for the users, not harder. Simpler data fields, intuitive variable names, meaningful value sets, pre-packaged variables in forms of answers, and completeness of a data dictionary are not too much to ask after the hard work of developing and maintaining the database.

This is why I insist that data scientists and professionals must be businesspeople first. The developers should never forget that end-users are not trained data experts. And guess what? Even professional analysts would appreciate intuitive variable sets and complete data dictionaries. So, pretty please, with sugar on top, make things easy and simple.

9. Cost
I saved this important item for last for a good reason. Yes, the dollar sign is a very important factor in all business decisions, but it should not be the sole deciding factor when it comes to databases. That means CFOs should not dictate the decisions regarding data or databases without considering the input from CMOs, CTOs, CIOs or CDOs who should be, in turn, concerned about all the other criteria listed in this article.

Playing with the data costs money. And, at times, a lot of money. When you add up all the costs for hardware, software, platforms, tool sets, maintenance and, most importantly, the man-hours for database development and maintenance, the sum becomes very large very fast, even in the age of the open-source environment and cloud computing. That is why many companies outsource the database work to share the financial burden of having to create infrastructures. But even in that case, the quality of the database should be evaluated based on all criteria, not just the price tag. In other words, don’t just pick the lowest bidder and hope to God that it will be alright.

When you purchase external data, you can also apply these evaluation criteria. A test-match job with a data vendor will reveal lots of details that are listed here; and metrics, such as match rate and variable fill-rate, along with complete the data dictionary should be carefully examined. In short, what good is lower unit price per 1,000 records, if the match rate is horrendous and even matched data are filled with missing or sub-par inferred values? Also consider that, once you commit to an external vendor and start building models and analytical framework around their its, it becomes very difficult to switch vendors later on.

When shopping for external data, consider the following when it comes to pricing options:

  • Number of variables to be acquired: Don’t just go for the full option. Pick the ones that you need (involve analysts), unless you get a fantastic deal for an all-inclusive option. Generally, most vendors provide multiple-packaging options.
  • Number of records: Processed vs. Matched. Some vendors charge based on “processed” records, not just matched records. Depending on the match rate, it can make a big difference in total cost.
  • Installment/update frequency: Real-time, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. Think carefully about how often you would need to refresh “demographic” data, which doesn’t change as rapidly as transaction data, and how big the incremental universe would be for each update. Obviously, a real-time API feed can be costly.
  • Delivery method: API vs. Batch Delivery, for example. Price, as well as the data menu, change quite a bit based on the delivery options.
  • Availability of a full-licensing option: When the internal database becomes really big, full installment becomes a good option. But you would need internal capability for a match and append process that involves “soft-match,” using similar names and addresses (imagine good-old name and address merge routines). It becomes a bit of commitment as the match and append becomes a part of the internal database update process.

Business First
Evaluating a database is a project in itself, and these nine evaluation criteria will be a good guideline. Depending on the businesses, of course, more conditions could be added to the list. And that is the final point that I did not even include in the list: That the database (or all data, for that matter) should be useful to meet the business goals.

I have been saying that “Big Data Must Get Smaller,” and this whole Big Data movement should be about (1) Cutting down on the noise, and (2) Providing answers to decision-makers. If the data sources in question do not serve the business goals, cut them out of the plan, or cut loose the vendor if they are from external sources. It would be an easy decision if you “know” that the database in question is filled with dirty, sporadic and outdated data that cost lots of money to maintain.

But if that database is needed for your business to grow, clean it, update it, expand it and restructure it to harness better answers from it. Just like the way you’d maintain your cherished automobile to get more mileage out of it. Not all databases are created equal for sure, and some are definitely more equal than others. You just have to open your eyes to see the differences.