Every Data Point Has a Story: Lessons from Expo 2020 Dubai


Mohanaselvan Jeyapalan, VP of Data and Insights at Expo 2020 Dubai shares notes on how storytelling can help business leaders communicate analytical output in a simple way.  

“We are at an inflexion point where the decision to enable real-time data processing is a business decision that requires the involvement of business leaders in equal or greater measure. It is no longer solely the responsibility of the technology department,” says Mohanaselvan Jeyapalan, Vice President of Data and Insights at Expo 2020 Dubai. Datatechvibe spoke to him about how to choose solutions for the enterprise tech stack, how data partnerships are burgeoning, and the impact of real-time data processing systems on environmental goals. 

Excerpts from the interview;

What are the key learnings from your journey with Expo 2020 Dubai?

Expo 2020 Dubai has been a transformative event for the UAE, profoundly impacting our guests, especially on difficult-to-understand topics such as Sustainability and SDGs. As an individual fortunate enough to have had a ringside seat to witness its rise from sand to the beautiful legacy it is successfully building today, I have been positively impacted in terms of knowledge and cultural perspective.

Regarding data, I have learned that the difference between success and failure lies in the ability to use “storytelling” to communicate data-driven insights for decision-making. Every data point has a story, and every stakeholder you engage with understands the story in their own way. While we may have the best tools and minds available, the importance of communicating analytical output in a simple way cannot be underestimated. Remember the old principle of “keep it simple,” but add some drama to make your data talk and not just walk for all stakeholders. Data walks through reports and dashboards, but it’s the story that makes it come alive.

How can enterprises benefit from data-sharing partnerships? How do you see this developing in the future?

Data sharing among entities, both in government and non-government sectors, has transitioned from being an idea to a necessary reality in the era of data usage to enhance our evolutionary progress.

In recent years, I have been involved in data-sharing partnerships with BIE, DET, DCT, RTA, and other contractual relationships. During Expo 2020, we pooled our resources and shared survey data to better understand how visitors and tourists perceived the Expo event and Dubai as a tourism destination. This mutual knowledge has led to enhanced decision-making, strategic planning, and resource allocation.

Through data sharing, we were able to access diverse data sets, which allowed us to identify new opportunities and gain a broader perspective. This proved particularly valuable when collaborating with key service providers, leading to the development of new solutions that enhance customer experiences and generate additional revenue streams.

Our data-sharing partnerships also improved our understanding of visitors, allowing for enhanced personalisation and targeted marketing efforts, resulting in increased customer satisfaction, repeat visitation, and overall revenue growth. These collaborations also helped strengthen relationships with stakeholders, including suppliers and visitors.

To ensure data privacy and security, we implemented formal data-sharing agreements that allowed data subjects to feel comfortable handling their data respectfully, ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.

In the future, we foresee increased use of advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to derive insights from shared data, uncovering hidden patterns and correlations to drive better decision-making and innovation. We also anticipate a greater emphasis on data privacy and security.

Emerging data-sharing platforms and ecosystems, like those being discussed by the Dubai Digital Authority, will facilitate easier, more streamlined data sharing between organisations, providing tools for secure data exchange, analysis, and collaboration. As data sharing becomes more widespread, we expect standardisation and interoperability to become increasingly important, ensuring seamless data exchange and collaboration between enterprises.

What factors must technology leaders consider when investing in systems to enable real-time data processing?

Firstly, I believe that we are at an inflexion point where the decision to enable real-time data processing is a business decision that requires the involvement of business leaders in equal or greater measure. It is no longer solely the responsibility of the technology department.

Here are the critical aspects that need to be considered:

Scalability and Flexibility: With the rapid growth and development of enterprises post-COVID, it is critical to invest in scalable and flexible systems, allowing for seamless integration and expansion as data volumes and processing requirements increase exponentially.

Data Privacy and Security: Data privacy and security are paramount when handling real-time data processing systems. Business leaders must invest in robust security measures and ensure compliance with UAE and international data protection regulations to safeguard sensitive information and maintain trust with customers and stakeholders.

Interoperability and Integration: As the UAE and Dubai embrace advanced technologies and digital transformation, investing in systems seamlessly integrating with existing infrastructure and working with other applications and platforms is crucial. Interoperability ensures smooth data flow and collaboration between different systems and stakeholders.

Analytics and AI Capabilities: Investing in systems with advanced analytics and AI capabilities will enable organisations to derive valuable insights from real-time data, leading to better decision-making, increased operational efficiency, and improved customer experiences. We have found that a combination of easy-to-implement tools like Tableau and Alteryx has particularly effectively drawn out insights on a near-real-time basis.

Reliability and Redundancy: Real-time data processing systems must be reliable and resilient to ensure uninterrupted operations and data availability. Investing in systems with built-in redundancy and failover mechanisms is crucial to minimise downtime and maintain business continuity.

Cost-Effectiveness: Management should carefully consider the total cost of ownership of real-time data processing systems, including upfront costs, maintenance, and support expenses. Specifically, this needs to be considered in the context of stakeholder expectations. For example, there is no point in investing in a real-time dashboard when stakeholders are expecting a daily report.

Sustainability and Environmental Impact: Given the growing emphasis on sustainability and environmental responsibility in the UAE, especially in the lead-up to COP28, it is crucial to consider real-time data processing systems’ energy efficiency and environmental impact. Investing in systems with low energy consumption and minimal environmental footprint will contribute to the UAE’s sustainability goals and enhance an organisation’s reputation as a responsible corporate citizen.

What are the key considerations when investing/ building solutions for your technology stack?

When building and investing in a technology stack, it is crucial to carefully consider factors such as scalability, flexibility, interoperability, integration, security, reliability, cost-effectiveness, developer experience, future-proofing, alignment with business goals, and in-house expertise.

In our case, we found that an optimal technology stack for our data & insights activities included AWS, Alteryx, and Tableau. This combination offered us a scalable and flexible infrastructure (AWS), advanced data processing and analytics capabilities (Alteryx), and powerful data visualisation tools (Tableau).

These components seamlessly integrate with one another and align with our goals and strategy, contributing to the success of the Data & Insights initiatives during the Expo 2020 event. However, there are trade-offs to consider with this technology stack.

While AWS, Alteryx, and Tableau are popular and widely used platforms, they come with higher costs compared to open-source alternatives. Additionally, although these platforms offer a rich developer experience and extensive documentation, they require specialised skills and expertise to leverage their capabilities fully. We had to scramble to recruit for these skills before the event, particularly in the area of AWS.

In conclusion, our current technology stack is a well-rounded solution catering to our business objectives and needs. We have carefully nurtured the specialised expertise needed to leverage these platforms, mentoring our data scientists over the years. By continuously considering these factors and adapting our technology stack, we have developed a strategic edge in understanding our customers’ behaviour and leveraging key insights for success.

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