Interview with John Abbey from Dunnhumby

This article takes part from the interview series with our speakers for this year edition of Big Data Week.

John Abbey is a Senior Data Consultant with nine years’ experience working for the world’s leading customer science company: dunnhumby. John strives to help brands and retailers put their customers at the heart and grow through data.

Enjoy an interview with his thoughts on big data.

 While Big Data is already a buzz term, what does it actually mean for you? (an old question with a fresh answer)

When I hear “Big Data”, it is usually when someone is trying to sell something.  To me, it is a collection of billions and billions of different pieces of smaller data, all that tell part of a story.  The challenge is sourcing it, deciding what is relevant, combining it across totally disparate systems and then understanding what the story is.  Also, this is not only a technical question, this is an organisational one where companies must invest in data.


Is it important to be data driven nowadays? If yes, why (please use examples from your industry if possible)?

Absolutely, but always with the right strategy in place.  Exploiting data can advance medicine, make better business decisions, optimise logistics helped by more and more connected objects etc.  dunnhumby put the customer at the centre of our thinking – and this is always by understanding a business, and their customers, through data.  Nowadays, with many channels, many competitors and many offers the customer wants to be considered as a “unique” consumer for the company.  We must provide the customer with a personalised and relevant offer, with the relevant channel, at the relevant moment and all of this can only be provided by robust data that enables deep customer knowledge

What are the main challenges a company encounters when starting to look at their data? 

Technical challenges can always be conquered, such as slow performing systems or poorly managed data.  The main challenge is mind-set.  Data is an asset, not a cost.  IT & the rest of the business must work together for a common goal, and that is not always easy in some companies, particularly more established ones – people must champion data!

What do you expect from your participation/talk at Big Data Week?

My main expectation is to learn.  It is always good to hear more from this sector and understand where very different companies/IT providers are on Big Data this year, what progress they have made from previous years.

Who should come and listen your talk in Big Data Week?

As I will talk about data asset strategy, people from all parts of the business should attend.  The Chief Data Officer of the company if they exist, CIO, CEO or any one senior in an organisation that is or plans to use data!  The talk is not dedicated to a particular sector. Even if my example is in retail, the question of data asset strategy is cross sector – nearly all companies will have to build a strategy around this in the next 3 years.

Do we still need data scientists with all the tools existing today for data cleaning, analysis, machine learning?

Of course we still need them.  The ideas and approach come from data scientists – all the new tools that arrive are just ways of executing the ideas.  Machine learning is a very exciting area, particularly for very specific tasks.  However, there will always be a need for common sense and that can’t be learnt by a machine.




During this time he has acquired experience of working with vast quantities and varieties of on and offline data across sectors (retail, media and finance) and markets (EMEA, the Americas and Asia). His role has evolved from coding and data loading when he started as a graduate to creating data strategies for some of the largest retail businesses in the world.

John graduated from Sussex University with a degree in Mathematics & Statistics.


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