Part 3 : Aggregating the Data

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 05-31-2006 Print Email

Companies have more information than ever, but they are ill prepared to use it when unexpected situations arise. If companies want their information to be more useful, their information must be more agile, says MIT's Stuart Madnick.

So how do you solve that problem?

One of the areas I've been looking at is what I call "information aggregators." An aggregator pools information from a variety of sources, with or without prior arrangement. A comparison aggregator, for example, looks at online camcorder vendors and gives the range of prices and bells and whistles for comparison purposes. Relation aggregators, like financial account aggregators, takes your relationships with Citibank, Bank of America, Schwab and so on, and pulls them together. Complementary aggregators take a theme of interest and take information gathered from different sources to create a complete picture. It might be a particular company if you are an investor, for instance, or real estate information at Zillow.com.

And while a search engine provides you with static Web pages, an aggregator can aggregate information from dynamic Web pages because it directly interacts with these Web sites. If searching for prices of TVs, it goes to an online retailer's Web site, asks what your price is for this TV, gets the information and reports it back.

Aggregators provide insights from a composite picture that the pieces alone never could. Zillow , for example, provides lots of information about your house: a map of where it is located; the assessed value of your house and neighboring houses: and other details. Max Miles consolidates airline frequent-flyer programs and gives you one consolidated mileage statement. But there are other things it can do which are neat: If you go on a trip with many legs, say Boston-London-Paris-Boston, at end of the month it can tell you if an airline neglected to give you credit. By putting together the total picture, it can alert you to missing pieces.

Aggregators could see how your product pricing compares with your competitors; people can do it by hand, but if you have 1,000 products and ten competitors, that's 10,000 prices you have to pull together.

I think aggregation has been tremendously under-utilized so far. Ask a CIO how many Web sites exist within their company. Each one is a stovepipe doing, providing, gathering, disseminating information on a particular issue. Aggregation can create a picture you've never had before.

There are so many issues that run across an organization where the data lies within stovepipes: vendor relationships, profitability, customer relationships. I once heard of a company where one division was giving an award to a suppler as Suppler of the Year, while another division was barring working with that supplier for poor performance. An internal aggregator could pull together vendor performance information.

But what about the information you have that's stored away in different places? If you actually listed the information, you'd probably be lucky if one percent or so is standardized.

Standardized data means the exact same information in the same format and with the same meaning: for example, having one country code for Brazil - not BR in one system, BRZ in other systems, and BA in another. Here's another example of non-standardized data: there are over 40 different standards for geographical coordinates. Even within the military, the U.S. missile command and the U.S. artillery command uses different geographical coordinates. If I want to do comparison shopping on the Web, someone has to convert the price information into a consistent form. Does the price include shipping and taxes? What currency is it in?

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