Royal Mail embraces big data to boost performance

As the UK's largest mail carrier, dealing with billions of items every year, Royal Mail is a company well-used to managing huge volumes of information. But when it comes to improving how it handles its own digital data, the business is still in the rollout stage.

Speaking at a recent Hadoop Summit in Dublin, director of the firm's Technology Data Group Thomas Lee-Warren, explained the company has turned to Hadoop as the basis of a drive to gain more value from its internal data.

He told ComputerworldUK that as every item Royal Mail delivers is tracked, it has a huge amount of data at its disposal. 

"We are about to go up to running in the region of a hundred terabytes, across nine nodes," he said. 

One of the key challenges for managing this was to reduce the time moving information around the business. Previously, Mr Lee-Warren estimated the company's data insights team could spend up to 90 per cent of their time simply moving data backwards and forwards between its data warehousing solution and its analytical solution.

However, the organisation's Hadoop platform, which uses a Hortonworks deployment of the open-source software, eliminates much of this and helps Royal Mail get closer to its goal of data analysts spending 90 per cent of their time exploiting data and making it available to the rest of the business.

"We're accelerating that whole process, we're not having to spin up projects just to get data," Mr Lee-Warren said. "We are able to accomplish a huge amount of work with single individuals."

The company is still building out its big data analytics solution, and is taking a measured approach to the technology. As Royal Mail has relatively few resources it can devote to the area, it has to keep a tight focus on projects that can deliver a specific return on investment.

For example, one solution the data insights team is working on is churn modelling in order to help reduce customer attrition. By studying the data, Royal Mail can help its business units identify customers in particular industries who are most at risk of churn, so the sales and marketing teams can take proactive steps to avoid this.

A key advantage of deploying Hadoop for such tasks is the speed the software can provide. This enables the company to experiment more and find new ways of integrating the technology with its more conventional tools.

Mr Lee-Warren also noted that Royal Mail has not so far experienced difficulty in attracting talented big data professionals to the company, even though a lack of skills in the industry was one of the top topics for discussion at the Hadoop Summit.

He said: "It may be because we have a very attractive brand, but we're not finding it difficult to attract strong talent. A lot of the time I think data scientists get locked into a way of working that they find difficult and they like new challenges all the time, and we can provide that." 

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