What is 'alternative data' and how can you use it?

Krishna Nathan, CIO of S&P Global, explains how 'alternative data,' such as satellite images and foot traffic, can transform a business.

Data science
Credit: Nick Hoffman

If you are like most CIOs, you have spent considerable time and resources on a BI program. You added some rigor around your company's processes for collecting historical sales data, for example, and you put in the tools to give dashboards to your executive colleagues who report on past performance and forecast the future.  

While establishing your BI program has been a tremendous effort and has certainly delivered great value to your business, it is only the beginning of your work with data, according to Krishna Nathan, CIO of S&P Global, a $5.3 billion provider of independent credit ratings, benchmarks, analytics and data to the capital and commodity markets worldwide. (S&P Global was formerly known as McGraw Hill Financial).

krishnanathan S&P Global

S&P Global CIO Krishna Nathan

"Some companies are starting to collect data known as alternative, non-traditional or orthogonal," says Nathan. "While it is still early days for this new kind of data, CIOs should start to become familiar with the technologies now. Soon enough, alternative data will be table stakes."

Before we call in an expensive array of data consultants, let's define what we're talking about.

What is 'alternative data?'

There are a number of definitions for "alternative data," but here is Nathan's: "Alternative data draws from non-traditional data sources, so that when you apply analytics to the data, they yield additional insights that complement the information you receive from traditional sources."

Let's say you run a retail business and are contemplating opening a new store in Los Angeles. Traditionally, you might have based that decision on the performance of your other Los Angeles stores and of your stores that are based in other major metropolitan centers. 

With alternative data, you can use cameras that take pictures of the shopping mall's parking lot for several months, and then correlate parking lot traffic with sales. Or you might collect data from a source that measures foot traffic in front of your proposed location. "By pulling all of this data together, you will learn something new about your business," says Nathan.

S&P Global, for example, provides analytics to commodity markets, so as CIO, Nathan thinks hard about alternative sources of data. "I am always thinking about how I can use alternative data sources in conjunction with our traditional data to provide our customers with something they cannot get elsewhere," he says. "How do I pull multiple sources of data together to give our customers something unique?"

For example, say S&P Global knows an oil refinery in Rotterdam has the capacity to refine 100,000 barrels a day. "Right now, they may be running at 70,000 barrels because of limited supply," says Nathan. "They have the capacity to refine 30,000 more barrels."

What if a tanker pulled into port at the refinery to unload 30,000 barrels? "If our capacity report is a week old, then we don't know that someone just dropped off oil. The traditional data is obsolete," says Nathan. Here is where a critical source of alternative data — satellite images — comes in handy. "By including satellite images as one of many data sources, we would have a more accurate, near real-time, understanding of inventory and production," Nathan says. "We would understand how oil flows across the globe." 

If Nathan is correct in his prediction that alternative data will soon become the norm, what can CIOs do to prepare?

Alternative data and the CIO

"Even if you don't have an immediate use case, start becoming familiar with the technologies," Nathan says. "Start developing the capability and the architecture to stitch multiple data sources together. Get a handle on how to manage the data chain. How do you secure it? Who has rights to it?"

And of course, hire the right people. "You need true data scientists," says Nathan. "These people know how to analyze the data, massage it and draw meaningful insights from it."

Alternatively, you can also tap into third party expertise to jumpstart your program.  That's what S&P Global did last March, when its Platts division acquired cFlow, a tool that interprets satellite data. Providing "waterborne analytics tools," cFlow draws on data visualization that allows users to monitor changes in trade flows through vessel diversions, along with the intelligence to know whether a tanker is full or empty and what it is carrying.

Regardless of whether you buy or build, Nathan says, keep one thing in mind when you convince your CEO it is time to invest in alternative data: "Some of your alternative data initiatives will work, but many will not. You will get a lot of noise as you look for the signal. But when you get lucky, and your alternative data gives you valuable insights, use that credibility to do more."

About Krishna Nathan

Nathan joined S&P Global in May 2016 as CIO. He spearheaded the creation and implementation of a firm-wide technology and data roadmap to accelerate growth and performance, and create new value for customers. Nathan came to S&P Global from IBM where he was vice president of systems. Nathan holds a PhD in engineering from Brown University and a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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