Big Data

The ‘Data Nation': Israel’s surprisingly large imprint on big data

Image Credit: israeltourism/Flickr

This week, I sat at a trendy restaurant on Tel Aviv’s beachfront — just steps away from SiSense’s research-and-development center — talking all things data with O’Reilly’s research director Roger Magoulas, chief data scientist Ben Lorica, and vice president of conferences Gina Blaber. O’Reilly’s first trip to Israel was prompted by the realization (based on data analysis, of course) that Israel is a major hotspot for data science.

Lorica conducted an analysis of meetups and was surprised to discover this tiny Mediterranean country has such a strong data community. “While we examined only a few data meetups in Israel (and many more for the major European cities), we found that Israel had many more “active” Meetup members than all the other cities except for London (for which we looked at many more data meetups),” Lorica said.

Over the course of several days, GraphLab co-founder Danny Bickson introduced the O’Reilly contingent to more than 50 companies, from major players like Amdocs, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, SAP, Citibank, and LivePerson to nascent startups.

“We set up a big data meetup at the Air Force House [in Herzliya] with 100 attendees, an 8200 accelerator meetup with around a dozen companies, a roof party at Aleph VC, along with a couple of hosted lunches,” Bickson told me. “We connected them with key figures in the Israeli high tech scene like [the man behind USB flash drives] Dov Moran and [Fraud Sciences founder] Saar Wilf.”

“I love the fact that many startups here are thinking big,” Lorica said. “There are companies here using data to address substantial problems in maritime commerce, forestry, retail, media, predictive analytics for sales, health care, and education. Some of the startups I talked to and hadn’t heard about already have significant traction (revenues).”

In February, eBay announced the opening of its first Big Data Lab in Israel — an exciting venture that will provide a select group of academics and startups access to 70 million gigabytes of data for research projects. (Check out photos of the lab here.)

eBay’s venture points to another trend. Israeli innovators have evolved from pure tech players to launching successful companies that use big data on the operational layer (for instance, Waze, Outbrain, and SiSense customer Wix (the popular cloud-based web development platform).

The president of the Europe, Middle East, and North Africa region for EMC, which operates an Israeli R&D division, got it right when he told the Jerusalem Post a couple years back about the potential he saw: “In Israel you have some of the best brains in the world. … Israel has to be a natural contender to be a winner, and it’s going to be a massive market.”

So how does Silicon Wadi compare with Silicon Valley?

“One area I think where the San Francisco Bay Area is still way ahead is probably in infrastructure,” O’Reilly’s Lorica said. “Many of the core open source projects in the data space originated from the Bay Area, and many of the key committers reside there. Key pieces of infrastructure in big data originated from social media companies, and the U.S. is home to large social media companies. So there are many more data engineers familiar with core big data components common in many applications.”

Lorica also told me he sensed a more cooperative versus competitive environment.

“I definitely got the sense that entrepreneurs here are a tight-knit community, and people I met were happy to highlight the achievements of other Israeli companies, not just their own. At least in the social events I attended, many people were happy to introduce me to companies working on projects they think I would find interesting, rather than just talking to me about their own companies.”

Tel Aviv University’s Recanati Business School co-hosted an event this winter with Columbia University’s business school on how companies of all sizes can use text mining and network analysis to capture and interpret Big Data.

Dr. Ohad Barzilay shared a legendary story about Wal-Mart, which, early on, used data analysis to predict what products would be in demand before a major storm. You’d think flashlights or other emergency equipment would come out in the lead, but the data showed strawberry Pop-Tarts and beer were the top sellers before storms hit.

Flash forward to the present, and you no longer have to be a behemoth like Wal-Mart to gain insights. Data science is accessible to small and medium-sized businesses and startups, and the number of business applications keeps growing.

It’s exciting to be part of the global data geek community that’s paving the way from data overload to data insights and to see the Data Nation make its collective contribution to the big data scene.

SiSense co-founder and chief technology officer Eldad Farkash envisioned a means for BI to be architected differently – away from OLTP, OLAP or traditional in-memory. This thinking is at the core of SiSense’s unique technology. Eldad and his team of data scientists, hardware and software engineers focus on SiSense’s mission: making Business Analytics accessible to business users. Farkash recently won the World Technology Award for his invention of In-Chip analytics technology.

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