Intuit Brings Big Data to Small Businesses and Consumers

When you think Big Data, products such as QuickBooks and TurboTax may not spring to mind. However, Intuit's 'Big Data for the Little Guy' initiative lets individuals and businesses make queries on the data Intuit has collected from its (willing) users.

When someone utters the words Big Data (and pretty much everyone does these days), the first companies that tend to come to mind are Google and Facebook--Internet companies whose entire business is based upon voraciously devouring data. However, there are plenty of other companies out there with massive volumes of information at their fingertips, and they too are undergoing data-driven transformations.

Intuit--maker of QuickBooks, Quicken and TurboTax--is one such company. It provides business and financial management solutions to small and mid-sized businesses, financial institutions such as banks and credit unions, consumers and accounting professionals. And it has mountains of data available to it, provided by users that trust it and have opted-in to share that data.

It has transactional data, behavioral data (drawn from products like TurboTax Online and Mint), user-generated data and even social data drawn from social networks and Twitter. And it wants to democratize that data through an initiative it calls "Big Data for the Little Guy," through which individuals and businesses will be able to make their own queries on Intuit's data.

"We want to save you time and money through the use of data to give you analytics that you could never afford otherwise," says Nora Denzel, senior vice president in charge of Intuit's Big Data and social design initiatives.

Denzel notes that using this data, she learned that her dry cleaner was charging her four times the average rate of dry cleaners in her city, prompting her to switch dry cleaners. Another example is determining whether you're paying more or less than others in your area for car repairs.

The data is also useful for businesses. If you're opening up a new café in New York City, you could use it to determine the proper wages for a new barista or an experienced barista. The data can also take you beyond comparisons.

"In QuickBooks, if you're a florist, for instance, we know what you buy," Denzel says. "Right now, while you're buying, we can tell you that you can save a certain amount of money if you buy from this vendor right now."

Big Data-Driven Transformation

Getting to the point of leveraging its data for these services has required a transformation within Intuit.

"When I began in the 80s, IT was the cost center," Denzel says. "We didn't really understand what they did. But then we aligned IT with the business and IT became the business. I think the same thing is happening now with data."

Formerly, data was locked up and in silos because there was simply no database big enough to contain it and no efficient way to perform analytics on it. But new developments in storage technologies and analytics toolsets have changed all that. And with the liberation of data comes a massive shift in mindset to a data-driven culture, she says.

"Now at Intuit, it's a data-driven decision culture on almost every decision we make," she says.

Establishing a Data Constitution

To get there, Intuit started with what Denzel calls a data constitution, essentially a rules of the road for data inside the company. It establishes the policy for data projects within the company, including taxonomies, rules for gathering data and privacy considerations.

The data constitution grew from a combination of the company's data stewardship principles and its need to protect the often very sensitive financial information placed in its care. As part of this process, the company established a standard taxonomy and lists of required fields for its products in an effort to minimize the need for data cleansing down the road.

"We got all of the data owners together and determined the rules of the road," Denzel says. "All of the different businesses were saying 'my business can save time and money if I have access to that data over there.'"

That group gets together quarterly to inspect the state of the data constitution and the data within the company. It modifies the constitution if and when it's necessary. The process hasn't eliminated the need for data cleaning altogether--especially in the case of mergers and acquisitions--but Denzel explains that it has streamlined the process greatly.

As for privacy, Denzel says Intuit has adopted a simple policy: ask.

"Our stance toward it is really to let the customer opt in and out," she says. "We don't ever want to cross that creepy line. We don't do anything without permission. When in doubt, we ask."

The Changing Face of Data Science

Denzel also notes that the data-driven transformation has also changed the face of the data science group itself. While previously analysts and statisticians were often as siloed as the data they worked with, that is no longer the case.

"Data is coming outside of the IT department and is getting managed differently," she says. "It's a new job category. You have to have at least 50 percent communication skills. An insight that doesn't cause someone else to act doesn't do anything."

Intuit's data scientists work with the data owners inside the company to train them on how to use analytics tools to test their ideas.

"A data scientist takes a bunch of data, looks into it and tells you what questions you should be asking," she says. "Our job as data scientists is really to educate and energize."

Thor Olavsrud is a senior writer for CIO.com. Follow him @ThorOlavsrud.

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