When it comes to big data, few understand how big it really is. Even in a population-sparse state like Wyoming, big data is shaping the business world and the energy industry as mathematicians, statisticians and analysts extract stories and narratives from hundreds of terabytes of spreadsheets.
“It’s the problems you’d read about on the front page of the Wall Street Journal,” said Gary Harvey, president of statistical and applied mathematical consulting firm William E. Wecker Associates in Jackson.
And Harvey said to solve them, Wecker has access to more than 1,000 enormous data sets that take up about a half a petabyte of storage space. That’s 500 terabytes – the equivalent of 500 mid-range computers’ entire hard drives filled mostly with spreadsheet cells.
Problem-solving with data
In other words, when big business has big problems, they turn to big-data analysts like Wecker to solve them. That’s – in one apologetic word – big.
Wecker’s client roster reads like the Fortune 500 list: BP, McDonald’s, Ford, Texaco, Bosch, Union Pacific, Visa, Dupont, Bank of America, Lockheed Martin, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Humana, United and many more names just as familiar. From transportation and logistics to automotive, banking, energy and more, Wecker’s developed a reputation as the heavy-hitting problem solver when companies need to extract readable, actionable stories from extraordinarily large data sets.
“We are, in the big scheme of things, a small company,” Harvey said, noting that the companies that hire Wecker have no real budget constraints and could hire anyone in the world to analyze their data. “With millions to trillions at stake, they’re highly motivated to hire the best they can hire. And they hire us to do these things.”
Harvey’s pride in this fact percolated through every measured sentence. When asked to delve into specifics, Harvey mostly relied on generalities to give a good idea of what Wecker does without revealing a lot about individual scenarios. Whether he chose this route out of client privilege or modesty or because the work would be difficult to describe to a layman, it’s tough to say.
But he did point toward the automotive industry as one example of his agency’s work. Ford, GM, Nissan and Toyota rub shoulders among Wecker’s advertised client list. And when they have tough decisions to make about the kinds of consumer recalls that make headlines and cost billions of dollars to correct, they bring in Wecker to trace the problem to its source using data.
“A couple years ago,” Harvey said, starting specific before immediately switching gears toward generalities with “a slightly vague” explanation instead. He said when consumers start to hear about a particular car getting into accidents, performing poorly in rollovers, catching fire or not living up to performance standards, “we get hired to figure out what’s going on.”
Of course, Wecker Associates would be out of jobs if that weren’t easier said than done.
“We analyze data – something very complicated – let’s say it’s an issue with production,” he said. With that lead and mountains of data to climb as varied as tracing multiple parts from various lines in factories scattered around the world, Wecker then has to pinpoint the problem through complex analytics, statistics and mathematics.
Through these analyses, Harvey said, they can extract a narrative the company can follow to protect its reputation and bottom line. They can essentially trace the data back to figure out which part caused the problem from which line in which factory on which dates.
“Is there a recall warranted?” Harvey said. “What should be recalled, specifically? We identify the problem and how to fix it in a large pool of consumer products.”
In Wyoming’s bread-and-butter energy field, Wecker has been hired to analyze data that improves manufacturing, creating gasoline more efficiently, and even taking an – immersive – look at deep-water drilling safety and performance.
The adage goes, “Figures never lie, but liars figure.” This adage points out a propensity to extract a less truthful narrative by extracting a small subset of data or cherry-picking the data that works to exonerate a criminal or back up a political viewpoint.
“That’s what we are not,” Harvey said. “If we want people to understand data in a true, but simplified way – we really rely on the trust we’ve built with people.”
They are transparent about handing over all data analysis to the clients to let them follow the same narrative threads that Wecker used to tell the story. They don’t leave themselves anywhere to hide.
Somewhat surprisingly, Wecker stays out of the limelight, despite working behind the scenes on the kinds of projects that land on the front page of international press agencies. One of the only press mentions Wecker has received in recent years was after Public Health England came under fire from data privacy activists for handing the agency anonymized data about every lung cancer patient between 2009 and 2013 without patient permission.
Opponents of the move called it an “unacceptable” violation of privacy, partly due to privacy concerns and partly due to Wecker’s reported former work for various tobacco companies (although the American Medical Association has also utilized Wecker’s expertise.)
Officials at the time defended the move.
“No identifiable patient information has been released, and prior to the disclosure, we thoroughly checked the study protocols, which stated clearly that it is a piece of medical research,” Digital Health quoted Jem Rashbass, national director for disease registration and cancer analysis at Public Health England as saying. “We have a duty to provide data for health purposes when its disclosure is not subject to any exemption.”
Many other instances of Wecker’s data analysis make the news with nothing public pointing to their role. The most specific case Harvey mentioned was a $30 billion litigation case with Visa and all major U.S. banks that looked at how interchange and swipe fees trended over time.
“I’ve got data on most U.S. and international credit card transactions around the world for the past 20 years or so,” Harvey said.
Harvey said he’s been working on the “big, complicated case” for more than a decade. In 2018, CNN reported that Visa and Mastercard, along with top U.S. banks paid out the largest antitrust settlement in history at $6.2 billion. The settlement was the culmination of 13 years of work, and Harvey said many aspects of the case are ongoing.
“I am actively working on it,” he said.
But working under such high stakes requires mental horsepower (they tend to hire only Master’s and Ph.D. grads from prestigious universities with hardcore math and statistics chops), 30 to 40 sometimes custom software packages and a highly secure infrastructure both onsite and “elsewhere.”
“Brick by brick from the basis of data, we can explain it in ways that people understand and believe it and understand the point,” Harvey said. “It’s not uncommon to have multiple cases with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at stake – companies are motivated to find the right answer.”
Analytics for business growth
While Wecker sticks to the high-stakes data analysis, the more common usage of big data’s power in Wyoming lies in the marketing world.
Jesse Sevier is marketing and media director for West Edge Collective, a Cheyenne-based marketing agency working with Wyoming’s Office of Travel and Tourism, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Cameco and various other businesses – large and small – that need more visibility.
Sevier said it’s all about understanding target demographics, breaking down who to reach and using big-data platforms like Google, Facebook and Instagram to reach people with a certain profile.
“They have a lot of data on their users, and we can put relevant content in front of them,” Sevier said.
Like Harvey at Wecker, Sevier said the key to improving business outcomes with data is to pull out the narrative. Rather than just checking whether a certain ad is performing well, Sevier’s teams use analytics to dig deeper and examine the aggregate. Does an organic social post drive traffic? How does that traffic behave once transitioning to a business website? Is the message they receive there enough to hold their interest, or do they feel a disconnect on switching platforms?
All of these behaviors are traceable and conceal the story of how all marketing efforts work together to tie down consumer interest.
Or many customer relationship management software platforms like Hubspot, Infusionsoft and others can further identify individual people who acquiesce at every interaction. So rather than the anonymized data provided by Google and Facebook, once a marketer has full marketing permission – usually in exchange for an E-book or something else of perceived value – they can trace a consumer’s path on the buyer’s journey.
“It gives us a bit more info on what kinds of content they engage with,” Sevier said. They can track which page generated the lead, what product finally caught their interest well enough to give permission, and then offer the marketing agency the chance to generate email and content around those interests that continues to engage that type of individual.
“Having a CRM is No. 1,” Sevier said. “We can spot good customer trends and build good custom audiences to market to similar people.”
And that perpetuates the cycle of interest and conversion. For some, this sounds like a privacy concern. Which is why Europe recently updated its standards of data privacy to ensure consumers know what they’re consenting to with its industry-famous General Data Protection Regulation. The enormous set of regulations set a new worldwide standard that threatens outsized fines for violations of trust between data gatherers and data givers.
For others – most notably the kinds of businesses benefitting from the arrangement – the data gathering can seem like more of a miracle.
“We like to tell clients that we’re not doing anything magical,” Sevier said. “We have a lot of experience and background in utilizing tools. And we understand southeast Wyoming and Wyoming well.”
And that helps them solve clients’ marketing problems faster and better through the use of data and analysis.
Those who market in Wyoming understand its unique challenges. Namely small volume and wide dispersion of clientele.
“In Wyoming, the data is kind of difficult because it’s small numbers,” Sevier said. “It takes longer to get data to make significant decisions off of.”
Whereas big national campaigns they push on can get enough data for justification within 24 hours, Wyoming campaigns require more waiting around for data to accumulate.
But in the end, the data will tell a story.
“For the most part, clients we have are engaged and trust the data,” Sevier said, adding that it helps them make a lot of decisions and justifies their efforts. “Justifying data is key.”
But no matter how small the business, Sevier said, it pays to be up to speed on current data technologies – from free tools like Google Analytics available to any website to paid tools that let you peer deeper behind the curtain.
“It’s fun when people geek out over it,” Sevier said.