The History of Big Data: From BC to AD

Big data may be the big buzzword of our time, but the concept goes back hundreds of years.

By definition, big data refers to any data sets that are too large or complex to be easily dealt with. In the 1600s, John Graunt, the father of modern demography, also worked with huge, overwhelming amounts of data about the population of London. 

But it all starts with data collection, and we know this began millennia earlier with the practice of census-taking. 

Hunting and gathering (of data)

A census is basically a way of gathering information on a population, and it’s not restricted to people. The earliest known census was conducted in Babylon in about 3800BC. Records suggest that the census counted the numbers of people and livestock, along with quantities of butter, milk, honey and vegetables.

These numbers were recorded on clay tablets although unfortunately, none of the raw data has been preserved. The Daily Telegraph muses that it could be because “the Babylonians probably sent the tablets through the equivalent of clay shredders to make sure their privacy was protected!”

The Bible also relates several accounts involving censuses, the most well known being the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph had gone for a Roman census. 

Censuses were used by the ancient Romans solely for the purpose of determining taxes. A shame they didn’t do more with the data – because maybe they could have used it to predict the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire! 

Data of the dead

In the early 1600s, a London hatmaker named John Graunt tapped into overlooked data sources to produce remarkable insights about life, health and mortality in his city. 

He started studying death records that had been kept by London parishes and compiled fifty years of data into his book, Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality. This is also the first known table of public health data, and its timely arrival coincided with the waves of bubonic plague that were sweeping the region.

His report painted a vivid picture of how Londoners lived and died, and he was the first person to give an estimate of the city’s population. He even predicted the percentage of people who would live to each successive age and their life expectancy year by year. But the data he collected was not always thorough or accurate – for instance, Graunt observed that syphilis was often covered up as the cause of death. 

All these records were publicly available but before Graunt, no one had thought about aggregating and analyzing the information in this way. His work helped to surface valuable insights that would have been instrumental for the city in mapping disease outbreaks and making better decisions. 

AD: The rise and rise of alternative data

Fast forward to present day, when the world is practically drowning in data. Yet we are meaningfully using only a fraction of it.

Businesses, investors and research firms are mostly guided by traditional data – that is, the usual government or company-issued data such as earnings and economic reports. But the frequency and depth of such data are often insufficient for identifying opportunities and emerging trends. That’s why more are turning to data outside the traditional realm, that is ‘alternative data’. 

It’s growing fast, with the number of alternative data providers tripling in the last three years alone. But the concept itself isn’t really new. 

There’s an oft-told tale about Walmart founder Sam Walton who would count cars in parking lots as a barometer of business, and once was so absorbed in the task that he crashed his car into the back of a Walmart truck. Now this can be done more easily and at scale with satellite imagery. But the moral of the story is that patience isn’t necessarily a virtue when it comes to business or investing – after all, why wait for the quarterly sales report when you can monitor foot traffic or point-of-sale purchases in real time? 

At its essence, alternative data is any data that is under the radar and underutilized. This data doesn’t need to be exotic or complicated. You could say that over 300 years ago, Graunt was also tapping into alternative data by examining mortality records.

While Graunt had to crunch through all this data manually, we now have the ability to process vast amounts of complex information pretty quickly. That enables businesses and investors to glean insights faster so that they can act on them before their competitors do. 

But there is one issue Graunt would have run into today…

What syphilis can tell us about privacy

As Graunt had astutely observed that syphilis deaths were likely under-reported due to social stigma, people suffering from the venereal disease in that era probably wouldn’t have been thrilled about such information being exposed. 

We live in a pro-privacy world now, where high-profile scandals have made consumers increasingly distrustful of companies handling personal data. Ensuring data privacy and security should rightly be a top concern for every company. 

It is for this reason that a clear and hard distinction must be made between personal data and non-personal data. While it is legally and morally wrong to expose an individual suffering from syphilis, there’s a huge public benefit in tracking and aggregating anonymized cases. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes the importance of national syphilis surveillance to understand how it spreads so it knows how to focus prevention efforts.

While most companies may not be dealing with matters of public health, it’s imperative that they handle their customers’ data with just as much sensitivity. Suburbia offers point-of-sale transaction data but we make sure our data sets are stripped of all personal details to begin with. This means we take it one step further than simply anonymizing the data – it’s not just about masking John Doe’s identity, but leaving any demographic information out completely.

The future of data

More businesses will find ways of harnessing the treasure trove of underutilized insights hidden in plain sight all around us. The Internet of Things means that the variety of data available to us will grow exponentially. 

In turn, this data will become more accessible as our ability to harvest usable information from big data improves by leaps and bounds with advancements in AI and machine learning.

At the same time, the growing privacy movement will shake up the advertising practices and business model of many companies. But with constraints comes creativity and new inputs for decision-making.

This will drive more companies to embrace and leverage alternative data. If investors are able to use it to generate higher stock returns, why can’t companies use it to improve their operations and grow their business? 

Ultimately, alternative data won’t be so ‘alternative’ in the future, as data becomes the next frontier for competition. Those who are able to tap into new sources to generate insights will be the victors in this brave new world awash with data – and those who fail will end up victims of their own complacency, much like the ancient Romans.

Lemon Lime and Data: How Sprite Has the Secret to Data Security

It’s cold, it’s refreshing and it pairs well with spicy food, but what can Sprite teach the world’s biggest tech companies?

In the raging debate about companies’ use of personal data for profit, people often think there are only two choices: Hand over all your personal data, or stop using online services like Facebook or Google Maps completely.

But this puts the burden of responsibility on consumers, who may not have the resources or information available to make the right decision. Instead, companies handling personal data should take proactive steps for better, safer products. And they only have to look to the soda industry for inspiration.

For decades, soda titans like Coca-Cola and Pepsi enjoyed uninterrupted growth, building global beverage empires and becoming household names. While there were always concerns linking soda to health problems, they didn’t start hitting the mainstream consciousness until the end of the 20th century. By then, soft drinks makers were often fingered as the sole culprits for rising obesity rates.

Today, dozens of countries around the world, including the UK, France and Norway, have slapped a tax on sugary drinks. While the tax has not yet been introduced in the Netherlands, Coca-Cola took an unprecedented step there to stay ahead of regulations.  

Coca-Cola’s game-changing decision

In 2017, the company pulled normal Sprite from the market, replacing it with the no-sugar Sprite Zero. This means when you order a Sprite in Holland, you will be served the sugar and calorie-free version by default. It has become the “regular” Sprite.


Coca-Cola said Sprite had been performing well, so it wasn’t just another move to boost sales. Instead, the beverage giant was making an important step to future-proof its business and provide a healthier product, without forcing customers to choose. Although they eliminated the bad choices, they were still able to offer variety to consumers, with new flavors like lemon lime and cucumber. 

So what if we take the same step for data? 


While businesses handling our personal data assure us that our privacy matters to them, the news headlines tell a radically different story. How can consumers trust companies when there are high-profile data breaches and incidents of companies misusing our data on a regular basis?

Most firms handling personal data are unlikely to make a change unless they feel the noose of legislation tightening. But as we’ve seen before, legislation is not a magic bullet. Consider Europe after new data and privacy protections (grouped under GDPR) went into effect in 2018. According to the International Association of Privacy Professionals, almost 100,000 privacy complaints have been filed but only a few have led to meaningful penalties.

In the case of soft drinks, Dutch experts have questioned whether a sugar tax would even make a serious dent in consumption unless the tax was a substantial one. 

Even when there are stricter rules in place, they can still fail to change consumer behavior or address the loopholes that allow companies to conduct business as usual. The ubiquity of those consent forms on websites have only encouraged people to adopt a click-and-ignore mentality, so that they can just make the pesky pop-up disappear as quickly as possible.

When it comes to data privacy, there are those who argue that people can actively choose not to use the services of companies that exploit their data. Well, maybe they shouldn’t have to make that choice themselves. 

Facebook Zero 

Just like how Coca-Cola offers only the zero-sugar Sprite in the Netherlands, zero personal data could also be the norm. Companies may need to collect some user data in the course of doing business but there should be limits as to how much information they can amass on an individual. Why does a social network even need to know your gender, in the first place?

It has become untenable for firms to say they value consumer privacy while collecting and hoarding user data, putting it at greater risk of breach or misuse. The same way it was impossible for soft drinks makers to say they care about their customers’ health while shilling beverages loaded with sugar.

More importantly, instead of trying to defend their key sales driver, the soda companies innovated and looked for new opportunities. They reformulated, they introduced smaller packages and they made it easier for consumers to embrace a healthier lifestyle. As a result, Coca-Cola’s revenues have stayed sweet even if their drinks haven’t.

Finally, what could be the most interesting parallel between sodas and personal data monetization is their innocuous beginnings. 

The first fizzy drinks were marketed as health drinks. If you were ordering a Sprite occasionally to wash down your meal, then soft drinks weren’t going to send you to an early grave. But over the years, with growing prosperity and the convenience of technology like vending machines, people started guzzling unhealthy amounts of soda.

It’s much the same with the harvesting of personal data. Initially, receiving services for free in exchange for your data didn’t seem like a bad trade-off. But increasingly, consumers are beginning to realize they are getting the raw end of the deal. A tectonic shift has occurred and companies, especially Big Tech, need to make major changes to their approach. 

This is already happening in the world of alternative data – for instance, Suburbia tracks sales of consumer products like Sprite, with zero personal information. It shows there can be real value in non-personal data and it is how we harness it that matters.

Can today’s companies follow in the footsteps of the soda giants, and come up with a new formula for monetization? It might seem impossible, but Sprite shows lemon, lime and consumer benefits can win together. 

Suburbia Goes to Japan: A Note from the CEO

The first Dutch ship arrived in Japan in the 17th century. It was called De Liefde, meaning love. Its arrival led to such strong links that, between 1639 and 1853, the Netherlands was the only European country allowed to trade with Japan. 

This trade was not only in physical goods, but in art, culture and knowledge. This knowledge sharing continues to this present day – in the shape of data.


As a data company, this special historical relationship between both nations sprang to my mind in September, when I was informed that Suburbia had become the first ever Dutch startup to be selected for Fintech Business Camp Tokyo – an accelerator program run by the office of the mayor of Tokyo along with Accenture Japan.


Over the last few months, I have spent a lot of time understanding Tokyo and eating my weight in kashiage and yakiniku. Apart from gaining weight, I have also gained new perspectives into the Japanese market and made many valuable connections within the industry. 


Many say it’s not easy for foreign firms to crack the Japanese market because of complex bureaucracy and cultural factors. This is precisely why the support of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and Accenture has been so valuable, in providing us with access to top domestic companies and counseling us on things big and small, including the intricacies of Japanese business etiquette


We recently concluded the program with a pitch in front of members of TMG, media and some of Japan’s leading companies. We showed how our Amsterdam-based startup is building innovative technology to solve some of the biggest problems facing both data providers and data users. This technology transcends borders – we can process data from anywhere in the world and transform it into a rich source of insights. 


Japan is interesting for us for several reasons. There is a growing shift from a cash-focused economy to contactless and payment apps, which will generate a flood of raw data. If collected and structured, properly and safely, this data has tremendous value. The Japanese government has already proposed policies to encourage the sharing of this ‘industrial data’ and companies are beginning to take notice. As the use of alternative data in investment decisions rises rapidly, Japan is uniquely positioned to leverage new data and use it to make better decisions for its large pension funds and asset management industry.


While we have been working with mostly early adopters based in Europe and the US, we are witnessing the global rise of alternative data, especially from the frontlines of great initiatives like the Fintech Business Camp. With four hundred years of history between the Netherlands and Japan, we hope to contribute to four hundred more.

-Hamza Khan, CEO, Suburbia

Is Europe buying into Black Friday?

Singles’ Day may be the biggest shopping day of the year but it has yet to really catch on in Europe. 

Meanwhile, Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American holiday but Plymouth, Massachusetts’ oldest celebration is going global. The shopping frenzy that takes place the day after the turkey has been gobbled up, otherwise known as Black Friday, has spread across the Atlantic and beyond. 

Now, Black Friday is seen as the biggest pre-Christmas sales event by retailers the world over. While turkey and pumpkin pie may not be universal, the love of scoring a good deal transcends borders.

Black Friday was virtually unheard of in Europe before the 2010s. Then the likes of Amazon aggressively marketed it and soon, other merchants started vying for a share of consumers’ wallets with tempting deals.

But is it possible that some are growing tired of participating in the retail madness and are jumping off the bandwagon?

In France, Black Friday first made its arrival felt in 2012 but it did not take off immediately. The French had to get used to the idea of shopping outside the legally designated summer and winter sales periods. But it has grown rapidly in recent years.

As consumers tend to go for higher value products on Black Friday, we looked at our luxury cosmetics and fragrances data to see the retail event’s impact on sales in France over the years.

Based on our data, 2017 appeared to be a breakout year for Black Friday in France, with a whopping 134% year-on-year (YOY) growth in sales. However, in 2018, YOY growth paled in comparison at 20%. What does this mean for Black Friday in Europe’s third largest economy?

Black Friday: Still Relevant?

There could be any number of reasons why Black Friday sales just aren’t growing as fast as they used to. While sales activity continues to peak on the day itself, retailers now tend to run promotions over an extended period to ease pressure on their operations. There is Cyber Monday, although the growth in ecommerce sales on Black Friday have blurred the lines between both.

In addition, the French have long loathed cultural imports, so it was perhaps no surprise when local online merchants developed their own response to Black Friday. “French Days” was launched last spring but it was so successful that it was held twice this year. With the most recent promotions in late September this year, less than two months before Black Friday, this could possibly be spreading consumer dollars thinner. 

But there could be another force at play.

It was recently reported that more than 200 brands in France have decided to boycott the upcoming Black Friday sales as a response to the negative impact of rampant consumerism on the planet. Instead, they are calling for “reasonable consumption” in a bid to “make Friday green again”.

Are these retailers just losing out to competitors during this highly anticipated shopping event? Or is interest in Black Friday hitting a plateau in France?

Let’s see if Black Friday will be bigger than last year, as some predict. Or if the patriotic French prefer to embrace “French Days”, while starting a more sustainable tradition with “Green Friday”. 

Dior Sauvage: Smells Like Trouble

It was Dior’s first new cologne launch in a decade. Introduced in 2015 with a campaign fronted by Johnny Depp, it was destined to be a blockbuster, much like one of the Hollywood icon’s films.

The campaign was struck by unfortunate timing though, as it came hot on the heels of Depp’s divorce settlement with actress Amber Heard. The long and bitter divorce was tabloid fodder as Heard had made allegations of domestic abuse against Depp, who flatly denied the charges. Despite the eventual settlement, people took to Twitter to call Dior’s ad “tasteless” and “tone-deaf”. 

A couple years later, Depp was embroiled in another lawsuit with his former business managers. 

However, the spate of bad publicity associated with its ambassador did not seem to throw customers off the scent.

In fact, it has gone on to become one of the world’s best-selling fragrances. According to GQ, Sauvage has overtaken Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle as the UK’s most popular scent. No mean feat, considering the women’s scent market in the country is 50% bigger than the men’s. It was even one of only two product lines credited for the momentum of luxury giant LVMH’s €6.08 billion perfumes and cosmetics business group in its most recent financial report.

Latest controversy

In August, Dior faced yet another backlash following the launch of its latest ad campaign with Depp. 

This time, it was widely criticized not for the off-screen antics of its spokesperson – but for cultural appropriation and insensitivity in the way it portrayed Native Americans in its 60-second commercial. The French fashion house promptly pulled the plug on the campaign. 

It is unclear how Dior will continue promoting the line now that the ad has been yanked right before the critical holiday season. But some say the ongoing debate on social media may be even good for sales since it keeps the product in the spotlight. Depp has defended the video, while Dior released statements about how the ad was made in consultation with the non-profit, Americans for Indian Opportunity.

The continued momentum of LVMH’s perfumes business hinges on the performance of flagship brands like Dior. According to a recent report by Morgan Stanley, Dior entered the realm of the mega brands in 2018, becoming luxury’s sixth player to attain sales over €5 billion. But the most interesting fact in the report was that over a third of Dior’s sales are derived exclusively from – you guessed it – cosmetics and fragrances.

So can Sauvage continue to be a key sales driver for Dior’s fragrances portfolio?

Running out of steam?

To forecast the performance of Sauvage, we took a look at our proprietary dataset tracking daily (anonymized) sales of luxury cosmetics and fragrances. And what we uncovered in our data tells a different story – it seems Sauvage sales have been slipping on key occasions before the latest controversy even erupted.

Some of the key moments for fragrance sales are around Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas Day, so we focused on those periods. While sales of Sauvage around Valentine’s Day have seen year-on-year (YOY) growth every year since 2016, they declined for the first time this year. Father’s Day sales were even more dismal this year. 

In fact, YOY growth has turned negative. After a steep climb in recent years that peaked in early 2018, it appears Sauvage has lost some of its earlier momentum. It could also be a sign that Sauvage is on the wane, somewhat like Depp’s career…

Perhaps the new campaign was meant to reignite interest and revitalize sales. Now that has been scrapped, how will Sauvage do this holiday season? And more importantly, does Sauvage still hold the key to the long-term growth of Dior? 

Only time – and data – will tell.

Learn more about our luxury cosmetics and fragrances dataset here.