Big data is the norm these days, and almost no industry is immune from its impact. Not even the travel industry.

A recent study about big data has noted that the travel industry, including the travellers, has the potential to benefit from big data initiatives. Yet, significant challenges remain on how to maximise the use of such large volume of unstructured data to an organisation's advantage.

A study authored by Thomas H. Davenport, visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, cited the challenges to the industry, namely: data fragmentation across multiple systems; co-existence of both big data and traditional data management architectures; finding and recruiting scarce big data science skills; and managing data responsibly and in the interests of all.

Upon harnessing high volumes of new, unstructured data, new approaches will be delivered to customer management, revenue management and internal operations.

"The travel industry stands at a big data crossroads today, with new technologies and techniques offering the potential to translate increasing volumes of data into higher profits and more efficient operations," Davenport said.

The Harvard professor, however, urged that "now is the best time to act", especially if big data has already been proven to improve decision-making, product and service innovation, and customer relationships of many companies.

Key to evolution

The emerging technologies, collectively considered as 'key' to unlocking the big data evolution, have taken the form of new open-source software for dividing data processing jobs across multiple commodity servers.

These technologies have been adopted together with new types of databases including 'columnar' and 'vertical' approaches combined with emerging programming languages such as Python, and Pig and Hive.

"Some leading companies are pioneering the use of big data and already seeing a huge impact," said the Harvard professor.

The study noted that the proper use of big data has resulted in efficient organisational performance. An example cited was KAYAK's price flight forecasting model, which notifies customers with the likely change in a flight's price over a seven-day window. The study also mentioned Air France-KLM's use of Hadoop as the basis of a group-wide revenue management system.

"Airlines, airports, hotels, rail companies and travel sellers need to ask themselves if they have a big data strategy in place, and if it will allow them to be at the forefront of this opportunity," Davenport said.

The study, contained in a report titled "At the Big Data Crossroads: Turning Towards a Smarter Travel Experience," was commissioned by Amadeus, which provides solutions to the travel industry.