The first battle of big data wars – Twitter vs PeopleBrowsr

29 Nov 2012

For most people the words big data sound important but few know what they really mean; something to do with cloud, perhaps. The current court battle between Twitter and analytics firm PeopleBrowsr is all about access to Twitter’s firehose of information, revealing Twitter to be one of the main arms dealers of the big data age.

The promise of big data is that with the right software tools you can analyse mountains of data – everything from tweets and emails about a product or service, for example, or in the future data from sensors and M2M devices – and get a realistic snapshot of a situation.

Firms like airlines can use big data analysis tools to quickly grasp customer sentiment from Twitter or Facebook feeds to see how travellers are responding to a new food service on flights, for example. Does it suck? Or they can gauge how happy customers are in terms of how courteously they are treated by cabin crew?

The battle between PeopleBrowsr, which is contesting Twitter’s threat to cut off its social analytics tools from Twitter’s firehose of data, illuminates just how powerful and valuable an asset Twitter can be in this new world of intelligence. Twitter recently announced major changes to its API rules coming with Version 1.1 of the Twitter API that will limit API developers’ access to its platform.

PeopleBrowsr yesterday won a court victory restraining Twitter from cutting PeopleBrowsr off on 30 November, but as TechCrunch surmises, this is only a temporary victory as Twitter intends to fight this all the way. A hearing date for a preliminary injunction has been set for 8 January 2013.

What I think Twitter realises is that not only is it a media company that can generate revenues through sponsorship and advertising, it is a power broker for the big data age with tons of valuable data and up-to-the-second insight.

In effect, Twitter has the potential to become one of the main arteries of big data insight in the decade(s) ahead.

In an interesting way, Twitter has done the media business a favour that Google and others have failed to – it has reminded us all that the data and knowledge produced does actually add up to something that must be protected, especially by those that create the platforms. And especially as a major shift in knowledge consumption and use is about to take hold.

How open an ecosystem is Twitter?

But still the major changes to its API rules rankle with the development community. Many companies such as PeopleBrowsr have invested heavily in products and services that pivot around Twitter.

Twitter’s frustration is that many of these companies are making revenues from its product where it hasn’t.

Peoplebrowsr’s frustration is that it relied on a sentiment of openness that was the hallmark of the initial Web 2.0 movement and had invested heavily in its products. The company’s relationship with Twitter goes back four years and it developed APIs that gleaned social intelligence from Twitter’s firehose of 400m tweets a day.

“We relied on Twitter’s promise of openness when we invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours of development time,” said PeopleBrowsr founder and CEO Jodee Rich. “Long-term supply is essential as this industry matures. We made this application to ensure full unrestricted access to the Firehose for our enterprise and government clients.”

PeopleBrowsr makes a very important point – Twitter’s business is built on the openness of data and core features like retweets, hashtags, @replies and $tags were actually created by the developer community and not by Twitter.

In its press release, PeopleBrowsr quotes Robert G Harris, professor emeritus in the UC Berkeley School of Business: “Twitter promoted its ‘open ecosystem’ to encourage third parties to risk their time and money building businesses that depended on Twitter to survive.”

The court battle between PeopleBrowsr and Twitter may represent a pivotal moment for API developers to stand their ground against platform changes a social network is making.

But me, I think this is one of the opening battles or skirmishes in the overall war for big data. This will be a war that will consume movements like cloud computing, open data and data science and this will set the tone for the products and services we will take for granted in decades to come.

Social data image via Shutterstock

View video highlights of the Cloud Capital Forum, where Ireland’s digital leaders gathered in Dublin recently to discuss cloud computing and the big data revolution

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years