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Diving Into Data Will Give Any Southeast Asian Start-up a Key Advantage

Never underestimate the power of data analytics

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BY Ezra Ferraz - 09 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

As a Stanford graduate and former Google employee, Stephanie Sy is well-versed in Silicon Valley data technologies and solutions, which she believes could go a long way in solving the social problems prevalent in Southeast Asia.

“We have a slew of problems like education inequality, a shortage of personal finance, and traffic. Infusing the region with its own piece of Silicon Valley is a good first step,” Sy says, explaining her reasons for founding Manila-based data consultancy, Thinking Machines.

As a data consultancy serving clients in the Philippines and the ASEAN region, Thinking Machines can help client organizations make better business decisions with data, whether it be creating a dashboard showing particular metrics, or a data pipeline establishing how a company collects, stores, and processes data.

This broad mandate has enabled Thinking Machines to work on some interesting projects, from stitching together a data-based narrative for a local children’s welfare organization, to condensing heaps of consumer insights into nifty infographics for a large foreign retailer. A more recent project involves plotting out a roadmap for one of the Philippines’ biggest conglomerates. “We’re helping clients utilize and mine their data more strategically,” explains Sy, adding she expects the scope of their services to broaden further.

Addressing organizational inertia

Data consultancy work can be hard to come by. Sy spares no punches in describing how challenging it is to obtain clients in Southeast Asia who want to leverage data to improve their business. The culprit? Organizational inertia.

“Simply put, there’s that mentality among organizations that they can’t really change the things they’re doing. This is one of the most important initial roadblocks to overcome because we deal mainly with data and technology — two things that are defined by change,” she says.

To overcome these roadblocks, Sy tries to share how Thinking Machines can save the company time, give them deep insights into their business, or impact the company’s bottom line and other key metrics.

To demonstrate what it can do for its clients, Thinking Machines culls from its growing portfolio of data science and storytelling. An example would be its work with global education organization Teach For All whereby upon collecting data from its operations in 45 different countries, Thinking Machines then created a dashboard showing the company’s strong points and areas of improvement.

“Once that story was in place, it allowed them to have a more informed view of the organization not only from a strategic standpoint but from an operational one as well. The story’s value extended beyond the metrics it spoke about, and also yielded insights on how data was being collected. This inevitably led to a lot of process improvement for the organization,” Sy shares.

More data scientists needed in ASEAN

Finding the talent to execute projects like the Teach for All program was a challenge for Thinking Machines. Sy relates there are few trained data scientists in Southeast Asia, and this has largely to do with how the scope of their work can be hazy. Clients tend to expect data scientists who can do everything, she points out.

To manage expectations, Thinking Machines handles every project as a team. “We have a broad range of skill sets, spanning big data engineering to machine learning and dashboard design. We make sure to staff each project with the right mix of people,” Sy says.

While not every organization may necessarily need the services of a data consultancy, Sy is an advocate of all organizations, even small businesses and start-ups, taking better care of their data. The first step is simply tracking data. “For start-ups and small businesses, it might be easier to adapt to using data given their agility to implement processes, adopt technologies, and what not,” she points out.

Taking this crucial step would give any business a decided advantage. “As it stands, awareness is half the battle regardless of the size of your organization. If you know what kind of data you have, what other data sources you need and how to get it, how it’s stored and how it can be communicated, even being able to describe your current business situation without predicting anything fancy, is a huge boon to the business,” she ends.