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How Gulf Air adopted do-it-yourself Big Data

Ben Rossi | July 9, 2013
There is no doubt that Big Data is the hottest IT topic of 2013. Everybody is talking about it as the next big technology to revolutionise the enterprise.

It is this stage where many CIOs are getting to and, just like Dr Haji says, deciding to put a project on hold until the technology matures and more success stories emerge.

Not Dr Haji, however. With the airline evolving towards restructuring, and opening and closing routes, he was determined to draw value from the hordes of comments they were getting on social media.

"They started tweeting and retweeting, so we found thousands of those comments going around," he says. "It's difficult to track them and understand where they're coming from and how business should respond. And it's not quantative -- it's something very qualitative that is hard and subjective to understand.

"We said, well, we've got so much data, we look at it every day, everybody thinks about it differently -- how do you go about it?"

Furthermore, more than 80 percent of social-media posts about Gulf Air are in Arabic, Dr Haji reveals, and, as such, he wanted to experiment in Arabic sentiment analysis.

Having neglected the big vendors, Dr Haji took the bold decision to assign a project manager and four or five staff, from his existing team, and execute a part-time assignment to train themselves on Big Data.

"I sent them to various seminars on Big Data and they went online and researched and looked at different software," Dr Haji says. "Then we had a backroom of staging to try these kind of things.

"When you have limited resources and you don't have a big budget, it's a good way to do it. To be honest, there was no proof of concept that I could take to the management and say let's spend that much and this will be the result. It was all unknown.

"So I told the team let's go after this and if we can do it good and well, we will be the first and would have done something unique. If we couldn't do it, we had at least tried."

Having done their research and self-training, the team opted for Apache Hadoop-based software from Cloudera.

Apache Hadoop is an open-source framework that allows organisations to process large amounts of data, regardless of its structure, at a low cost, and has largely been attributed to driving the growth of the Big Data industry.

However, Hadoop has presented the industry with challenges related to a lack of talent in those that can use the technology.

"We ended up with an open-source system where the vendor doesn't support you beyond certain levels," Dr Haji says. "You get the structure from the vendor, but you have to rely on yourself for everything else."

"It was just a trial -- it wasn't something structured where a vendor had come up with a solution and said here is the ideal solution for your problems. We just made sense out of it and created from scratch, and whoever we talked to said they had never heard of anybody using Big Data for such things. But that didn't justify that we shouldn't go for it, so we started.


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