Cracking the data puzzle

Looking at traveller data in new ways could help travel buyers create more relevant programmes

“I use the Waze app when I drive back from the airport on the M4 because I trust its view more than I do the car’s Satnav,” says Simon Lamkin, a technology consultant and former airline IT head. In switching from Satnav to the phone app, Lamkin is opting to use data that is at the heart of the theory dubbed “social physics”.

Waze is a GPS navigation tool that reveals where a driver will encounter travel disruption in the shape of traffic jams. Each and every member of Waze that is using the app is providing travel data in real time.

Waze is among a range of data-sharing technologies reshaping travel. Cyclists and fitness enthusiasts share routes and performance data on sports app Strava, while public transport travellers in major cities garner service information on Moovit (which claims to have 520 million users globally).

Another example is Transport for London (TfL). Since July this year it has been tracking passenger movements through 260 wifi-enabled stations, using signals from their phones and other devices. There’s no way to opt out, unless a passenger switches off their wifi. It’s a step up from simply capturing tap-in and tap-out data at station gates. As a result, TfL can see where, when and how people are using the tube, and will use the data to improve the way it runs and plans the network, and also provide customers with more detailed information.

What is social physics?
The commitment to sharing data is central to social physics – a term coined by Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and founder of predictive analytics start-up Endor.

Underpinning social physics is big data; the term often used to describe when major enterprises collate massive levels of data using the power and affordability of cloud computing. Pentland says social physics relies on call records, credit card transaction information and GPS insights, all of which create “digital breadcrumbs”, giving an accurate insight into how people and communities actually acted, rather than using their feedback from surveys.

In his book Social Physics, Pentland says that “patterns of interaction translate into collective intelligence”, by which he means data sharing as a central tenet of the modern community and economy.

“To understand our new world we must extend familiar economic and political ideas to include the effects of millions of people learning from each other and influencing each other’s opinions,” Pentland writes. “We can no longer think of ourselves as individuals reaching carefully considered decisions.”

Implications for business travel
How does this relate to travel management? At its core, social physics has two preoccupations: idea flow – discovery and collaboration create new ideas; and social learning – the development of a new idea into a habit and behaviour. “We take social cues from each other because we are social creatures and we have a tendency to follow the crowd,” says Caroline Carrathurs, a data expert and author.

Jo Boswell, founder of customer experience firm Sentio B and former head of customer value at British Airways, says travel buyers could provide services, such as alerting business travellers to travel disruption. For example, when flights are delayed or cancelled, data could be used to protect travellers from the disruption. “Regular travellers know certain routes and the points of weakness, and this data could inform the business travel buyer to be less focused on the price and more focused on the chance of success of arriving at the destination on time,” she says.

Aurelie Krau, consultant at Festive Road, says: “People don’t buy anything without reading reviews, and this is the first layer of collective intelligence.” She predicts that with more aircraft offering wifi, there’s greater scope for travel buyers to “take advantage of collective intelligence”. She claims new concepts, such as social physics, are part of the journey travel buyers are on. Mining data from travellers could help them to improve the lives of their staff.

“Travel buyers need to demonstrate to procurement and finance teams that buying travel in a way that understands the needs of the traveller has a benefit to the business, in terms of increased productivity and lower attrition in workforces,” she adds.

Black Box Partnerships’ Raj Sachdave thinks the insights from social physics could be powerful for travel buyers. “Social physics tells you what is really going on,” he says, adding that the theory can lend itself to making more informed business travel buying decisions based on the needs of the traveller.

Challenges ahead
However, Boswell points out apps, such as Waze and Strava, provide a reward to the user and this drives social physics, but business travel may struggle to find the same behavioural benefit. “There is a value exchange for those giving up their data, for example with Strava it is about the competition. People have to see a benefit from sharing data.”

Meanwhile, Sachdave is concerned that the travel sector is too far behind to take advantage of social physics, as it has only just discovered big data. “People in travel are taking historic data and mining it for patterns and saying it is the future. The challenge is that the travel industry doesn’t have a close enough relationship with the traveller to look at the data to derive insight.”

Then there is the question of privacy; as the negative media coverage of Facebook and other big brand data breaches leads to people being wary of the data they share, so social physics could become a tougher sell.

But as Pentland points out, “in order to understand the total pattern of interactions within an organisation, it is vital to capture all data”. The task for travel buyers is to figure out how the parts of the data puzzle fit together.

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