Big data wishes are coming true at Disney World

From the Orlando Magic to the Magic Kingdom, two Florida companies are under a big data spell. And this week they offered tips on how to find an analytics wizard.

At a panel session Tuesday at the SAS Global Forum 2012, executives from the Walt Disney Company and the Orlando Magic Ltd. discussed the role of the data scientist within an organization.

One audience member asked about how to get started with a big data section: Is one person enough?

Probably not, said Cameron Davies, director of management science and integration at Disney. If possible, he said, an organization should have a few big data gurus working in tandem, not only for purposes of “redundancy,” but also to avoid a situation in which a single person in a corporation possesses arcane, inaccessible knowledge about the company’s operations.

Plus, he said, having several people working on the same models can prevent personal biases from being reflected in the output data. A team of data scientists will provide the necessary “checks and balances” within the organization, Davies said.

“Analytics is still subjective,” he said. “I don’t care how complex your models are, there are assumptions you have to make.”

Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said the National Basketball Association team started with a single analytics professional, but has since expanded its team to three. This is probably the ideal number for a company getting started, Davies said.

Audience members also asked about how to pave a career path for a big data specialist, a relatively new position with somewhat undefined roles. With data scientists in very high demand in many industries, especially in the financial services sector, employee retention is a constant concern.

Davies said data scientists should be free to move out of IT into other branches of an organization and of course, earn plenty of money-but they probably shouldn’t be considered management material down the road. “You have really, really talented people who are brilliant at what they do, [but] you probably don’t want them leading people,” he said.

Martins said his company has developed some of its analytics talent in-house. But in a competitive marketplace with scarce resources, sometimes it pays to be more aggressive. In the past, he said, “we’ve stolen, for lack of a better term, from another company who [had] an experienced analyst.”

The Orlando Magic management has been using SAS analytics tools for several years now to keep track of its ticket sales and the behaviour of its ticket holders, particularly those who buy season tickets. The company can monitor how many games are attended and how many tickets are re-sold, for example. More recently, the Orlando Magic has begun to analyze performance of players on the court, similar to what was depicted in the movie Moneyball.

The Walt Disney Company has also invested heavily into analytics to serve the millions of customers it entertains every year. In 2009, it began using SAS/OR (operations research) software and SAS Forecasts to estimate how much inventory it would need in its restaurants. It also creates models to predict everything from ride wait times to the number of staff needed to run its hotels.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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