Last week, Amadeus, which provides one of the three major global distribution systems to the travel industry, published a report on big data authored by Thomas Davenport (currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School).  Davenport identifies data privacy issues as a major challenge to the use of big data and suggests that proceeding with “permission, transparency and with delicacy” is key.  However, his summary and recommendations do not mention how the privacy challenge can be addressed.  In this post I will highlight some of the most interesting aspects of the report and will add my own recommendations for what companies in the travel industry should be considering in terms of privacy.  

  • Data scientists and machine learning.  Tom Davenport’s report identifies the increasing importance (and scarcity) of data scientists and how they are critical to understanding machine learning (one of the aspects of big data that is different from traditional forms of data analytics).  McKinsey made a similar point in their report on big data.  Less frequently discussed is the fact that data scientists will access a great deal of personal and sensitive data.  Because of this, background checks before hiring and post-hiring privacy training will be especially important.  Indeed, sensitivity to privacy issues should be considered a core competency of the data scientists. 
  •  Personalization is already here.  One of the most exciting uses of big data in the travel industry is personalization of the travel experience.  The report includes a case study on British Airways’ “Know Me” program.  This program was viewed as controversial from a privacy perspective by the press when it was first rolled out, although BA’s privacy policy and Executive Club terms clearly allow for use of personal data for customer service.  The Davenport report should perhaps have mentioned this in the case study and recommended ways in which data use permissions can be made more prominent and easier to understand.  Even programs that improve the passenger experience (like Know Me) require an assessment of the privacy impacts.  Customer trust in personalization will need to be built over time based on confidence that privacy and security issues are being managed well.
  • Inspiration, full itineraries, onward travel and disruption.  The report highlights the potential benefits for travelers in big data applications that intelligently recommend travel options, for example, by providing inspiration for a trip, or a set of personalized booking options for a specific trip (e.g., air, hotel, car and dinner options in one package), or information about onward travel (e.g., suggested options for public transportation) or solutions to a travel disruption (e.g., proactive booking options for alternative flights when there is a delay).  These would all be terrific for the traveler!  For travel management companies to offer these recommendations, they will have to adopt robust data privacy and security policies and procedures to assure travelers that they can appropriately manage the very detailed personal profiles that the travel management companies will create in order to offer these services.  In addition, corporate customers of travel management companies will need to verify that their travel management company provides appropriate privacy protections before using such ultra-personalized travel services.
  • Collaboration.  The report’s final recommendation is that everyone will need to collaborate to realize the opportunities big data creates.  The report could have gone on to mention the need for flexible collaboration agreements that adapt to the needs of the collaboration, but that also address data transfer, use and security issues, as well as potential antitrust and competition law considerations in data sharing arrangements. 

The report is thought provoking and delivers clear messages to research, strategize and act on big data (or else get left behind).  I would add a further recommendation – build privacy by design and security into those efforts and coordinate with privacy professionals.