On the world stage, it is clear who enjoys the starring role in the Internet-sphere. It’s safe to say that the US has given the Oscar-winning performance while Europe has played a distinctly supporting role. Consider this: globally, US-based companies represent close to 67% of the total market capitalization of public Internet companies while European companies account for less than 4%. Britain, Germany and France combined have 15 Internet firms valued at over $1 billion while the US alone has 87. Europe is yet to produce its own champions on the scale of Google, Facebook and Twitter. Tellingly, in fact, Google accounts for a larger share of the European search market than it does of its home market.
Early signs indicate that history might well repeat itself as we enter the age of Big Data. As many as 17 of the top 20 Big Data companies belong to the US, while only 2 come from Europe. With trillions of dollars worth of economic and social value at stake, Europe can’t afford to be left looking from the wings once again.
The good news: Europe has woken up to the issue and is taking steps to enjoy its time in the limelight. The European Commission (EC) has launched the Startup Europe program to help domestic startups grow beyond early-stage and cross the €100 million mark. The program includes a range of initiatives that will provide startups with easier access to resources such as accelerators, venture capital investment and crowdfunding. As part of the program, the Commission has also launched the “Startup Europe Partnership” to involve European corporations, universities and investment communities in growing Europe’s startups. Key goals of the partnership include increasing private and institutional investment in startups and encouraging European corporations to buy more services from startups.
But winning the plaudits in Big Data will certainly need more. For a start, Big Data requires a multi-disciplinary skill-set that is in critically short supply. Addressing the supply deficit will require a multi-pronged approach that emphasizes a mix of education, training and skills development. First, new master’s level degree programs in data science will need to be created to meet the need for highly specialized quantitative and technology skills. As an example from outside Europe, the Advanced Analytics Institute (AAI) at the University of Technology Sydney has developed Master of Analytics (Research) and PhD degrees in analytics with the aim of producing the next generation of analytics graduates.
Second, Europe will need to ensure that its existing IT and management workforce is trained to take advantage of Big Data. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can play a vital role here. MIT is launching a 4-week online course on Big Data through the edX MOOC platform – “Tackling the Challenge of Big Data” – which is directed specifically at professionals and executives.
Third, the seeds of strong computing and analytical skills will need to be sown at the earliest stages. Here, the rest of Europe can take a leaf out of the UK’s book. The UK’s new computing national curriculum requires that students aged between 5 and 16 be given the skills they need to build apps and write computer programs – skills that will lay the foundations of a future pool of data scientists. Importantly, teachers too need all the ammunition they can get in order to take on Big Data. The UK has taken a range of steps towards this. For instance, it has put together a £2 million fund to build a network of 400 “master teachers”, who will help train thousands of other computing teachers in Big Data skills. Further, it is providing financial incentives of up to £25,000 to encourage exceptional computer science graduates to become teachers.
Of course, if Europe is not going to fluff its Big Data audition, it will need to ensure that conditions for the use of personal data are clearly established and citizens have greater control over how their personal data is used. Measures such as those taken by Japan can serve as a starting point. Japan has established the Personal Data Working Group to develop user-friendly descriptions of terms-of-use so that consumers are better able to choose whether to opt in or out of online services. Europe will also need to support business models that offer companies a legitimate means to access user data. UK-based startup Handshake.uk.com, for instance, is an online marketplace that allows consumers to negotiate the exact price of the personal data they are willing to share with brands.
When William Shakespeare said that “all the world’s a stage”, he probably wasn’t thinking of Europe’s need to define a strong role for itself in the global political theatre. However, if Europe doesn’t want itself condemned to play a minor role in Big Data, while others again take the major parts, it needs to step into the limelight, building a fertile startup ecosystem, a robust talent pool, and privacy safeguards that protect consumers without stifling businesses. Who knows, Europe may make a clean sweep of the Big Data Oscars.