Virgin Media’s digital evolution in Belfast brings data revolution to life

27 Nov 2017

Virgin Media Ireland CEO Tony Hanway on stage in Belfast last week. Image: Luke Maxwell

Digital transformation needs to be a tide that raises every boat. But it starts with human instinct.

At the iconic Titanic Belfast centre’s ballroom – complete with a replica staircase from the ill-fated ship – the promise of digital transformation was revealed in ways many would not expect.

The Virgin Media Digital Evolution event proved that data does not have to be frightening or complicated, but could hold the keys to unlocking efficiencies.

‘We are no longer living in a mobile-first world, we are living in a mobile-only world’

It also revealed that artificial intelligence (AI) may be powerful, but it will never match humans for instinct.

The CEO of Virgin Media Ireland, Tony Hanway, revealed that the cable TV and broadband player was investing £3bn to connect 4m homes across Ireland and the UK.

“We have 50,000 premises in Northern Ireland and we are on track and have done the majority of those connections. These investments will create jobs and, more importantly, make Northern Ireland a prosperous, industrious place to be able to punch above its weight within the UK and beyond.”

Hanway said that Virgin Media’s investment in Northern Ireland was disproportionately larger than any part of the UK and Ireland.

Hanway said that it would be impossible to talk about the digital future without mentioning the looming Brexit.

“The island of Ireland is sitting at a marginal position at the edge of UK and Europe. Connectivity is incredibly important. Traditionally, our biggest handicap was our geographic position. But now, we can overcome that handicap and bring ourselves closer to the world.

“As Brexit continues, even the sunniest Brexiteer must accept that the next five to 10 years, as the UK detaches itself from the EU markets and seeks new ones, it is not going to happen overnight. UK SMEs are going to have to get much more connected and find new markets,” Hanway warned.

Foster inclusion and diversity

While tech has the potential to change lives and raise all boats economically, Roseann Kelly from Women in Business Northern Ireland said that the digital world will need to be more inclusive. By leaving women out of opportunities, it means missing out on half of the population’s input into future solutions.

“The tech sector has a huge issue with diversity. Just 17pc of those working in tech in the UK are female and just one in six specialists are women. One in 10 leaders in tech are women.

“Female representation in the tech sector has stalled in the last 10 years.”

Kelly said that the lack of women in tech leadership positions is impacting on the industry’s overall talent supply, resulting in fewer young women believing they can aspire to careers in the sector.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.

Storytelling through data

Dr Austin Tanney of Northern Ireland-based tech company Analytics Engines showed how it was possible to tackle the healthcare crises in Ireland and Northern Ireland through data.

He said that the solution is not just arriving at best practices through digital transformation, but enabling a root and branch revolution in care.

Tanney said that part of the crisis is both the NHS and the HSE’s inability to analyse their own data. A key factor is talent.

“Data science is one of the most popular jobs in the world right now and some can command a salary of $500,000. But how can the NHS compete with that if all it is prepared to offer a data scientist is £40,000 a year sterling?”

Illustrating how the power of data can lead to better approaches in care, Tanney looked at the global problem of diabetes.

“422m adults worldwide have type 2 diabetes due to their lifestyles, which is preventable and reversable. 6pc of the UK’s population have this. At this rate, we will have 150,000 more patients with diabetes in the next year. The disease is costing £365m a year in Northern Ireland alone. Across the UK, this costs £14bn a year or £25,000 a minute – and the consequences are strokes, blindness and heart disease. All of this can be prevented by people losing weight and being more active.”

Tanney was able to pinpoint that diabetes is a socioeconomic condition that affects people in areas with higher unemployment. In Northern Ireland, north Belfast had the most instances of diabetes compared with the more affluent Foyle area. In the US, Colorado emerged as the healthiest place to be, and also where salaries are higher on average.

“There are clear links between diabetes and socioeconomics,” Tanney said, demonstrating the power of data in helping to unlock blockages in the health system’s arteries.

The AI-first revolution

The data revolution was encapsulated quite neatly by Simon Balfe from Google Marketing Solutions who revealed that seven times more data is created daily today than in 2010.

“More people are searching on Google via mobile than desktop.”

He said that this is leading to a corresponding revolution in people expecting services immediately for instant gratification.

“There has been a 120pc increase in searches for same-day shipping since 2015 and a 300pc increase in searches related to ‘open now’. There has been a 150pc rise in travel-related searches for ‘tonight’ and ‘today’.”

And yet, Balfe revealed that less than 50pc of EMEA businesses have sites optimised for mobile. “What a lost opportunity,” he lamented.

He cited Google co-founder and the CEO of Alphabet, Larry Page, who said: “We are no longer living in a mobile-first world, we are living in a mobile-only world.”

Balfe said that every 10 or so years, the tech world experiences massive paradigm shifts. In the 1990s it was web, in the 2000s it was mobile and, in this present decade, it is AI and machine learning.

“Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, recently said Google is now an AI-first company. AI and machine learning is enabling us to achieve 40pc savings on energy used for cooling in all of the Google data centres. We use machine learning to understand the weather outside and the temperatures inside, and know when to open and close the blinds.”

Balfe said that it is only the early days of machine learning, “but already we can see the opportunities”.

In all of this, there is a need for human instinct, said Mark Haslam, managing director of Loud Mouth Media. Loud Mouth Media is a digital marketing agency with offices in Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow, with more than 120 active clients, including the International Football Association, Ulster Rugby, KX and Titanic.

“We help these businesses to make money. We use AI, machine learning, but we also incorporate a human element.

“Ultimately, data analytics exists to make money. Every time someone goes online, Google is gathering information,” he said, adding that it is unsurprising that Google also owns YouTube, the second-biggest search engine on the planet.

Haslam said that data helps people to make better decisions and do better things.

For businesspeople that have still to understand it, however, he urged them to understand where technology could be applied to their organisations.

“What can’t be automated? Your priorities, your competitors, external factors, your digital strategy – you have to use your head.”

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