Telmo Silva On How ClicData Aggregates And Harmonizes Data Sources To Help Optimize On-Screen Messaging
August 24, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Integrating data has increasingly climbed the priority list for more ambitious and involved digital signage and digital OOH projects. The big driver for that is how near or real-time data makes what’s on-screen automated and triggered, which means more timely, targeted and therefore relevant messaging.
Lots of CMS software companies offer some degree of data integration and on-screen presentation, and we’re starting to see some third-party companies that work mainly in digital signage – like Screenfeed – also offering data display toolsets.
We’re also now seeing well-established data handling companies making themselves known in this sector, particularly to help make some of the more complicated set-ups both happen and then reliably, and securely, work. ClicData is a software firm based up in the northwest of France, but has clients globally that use its Business Intelligence platform to bring data in from more than 250 sources – into a single, harmonized data warehouse.
I spoke with co-founder and CTO Telmo Silva about Clicdata’s roots, how its platform works and how it can be applied in digital signage applications.
David: Telmo, thank you very much for joining me. Can you tell me what ClicData is all about?
Telmo Silva: I started ClicData in 2008 as a pharmaceutical-focused data analytics company, and later branched out a little bit into making it a wider-used data analysis, data management and data intelligence tool for all sectors, and hence the name, ClicData from ClicPharma before, and yes, this tool is really the culmination of that learning in the pharmaceutical sector that we thought is applicable to really any sector.
David: Okay. So if I’m sitting here listening to the beginning of this podcast, some people might be wondering, those in digital signage and the AV sector, might be wondering, okay, why am I listening to this? How does it plug into that sector?
Telmo Silva: Absolutely, and it’s funny, Dave, because an acquaintance of ours asked me, should we do this podcast? And I said, yes, absolutely, because everything generates data and digital advertising is definitely one of the factors.
You have to know where you’re spending your money and what you’re requiring and who’s looking at things, and one of the first clients we had in the early days was actually a Canadian company out west that had this technology on elevators to take snapshots of peoples and try to recognize their age group and their demographics and as they’re playing the videos on the small screen on the elevator, try to figure out what’s the retention? Are their eyes moving and moving away from the screen and so forth, and how long do they stay hooked for those short 30-second clips, and things like that? And that was actually my first introduction to digital advertising and a use case for ClicData, a very successful use case, and I was hooked on that.
I was hooked into that so much that where ClicData is based out, which is France, there’s a very large history of retail companies here that spent a lot of money on aisle advertising, and they start using those concepts, not only in terms of video and monitoring but also in terms of monitoring the paths of customers through their stores, optimization of aisles and things like that, where to put the digital signs and advertising and so forth, and all that generates a lot of data that you have to make sense of. And this is really well ClicData comes in, right? Those point solutions with digital advertising are part one, but without actually collecting all these from the different stores, and different locations that start making sense of it, it’s just data, right? It does not turn into information until you do something with it and that’s really where we come in, in trying to bring as much data from the different systems and different points of information really that a company may have, or a client may have and bring that into something that makes sense, that you can aggregate, that you can slice and dice, and then further down the line, then expose that to your customers, and say, okay, this is what you paid for.
David: So you’re aggregating and harmonizing and developing insights around the data as opposed to being a collector of data, right? Like you’re not doing any of the computer vision or sensor-based work yourself?
Telmo Silva: We do not, but we do have all the necessary connections just with the different systems. Unlike potentially other systems that are very well standardized, each vendor of those displays of those collectors may have their own interfaces, APIs and so forth. They may have their own storage formats and as you use the different systems, your challenge is really to understand, how can I connect to this one now, and how can I extract information that I want out of that. And our connectors are actually quite flexible in that sense where we have fixed connectors for some of those systems, but for others, we have generic connectors that you can kind of configure to tap into that data.
David: Would this be something that might be called middleware?
Telmo Silva: I would say potentially, yes. It depends on your definition of middleware. Ultimately we see business intelligence at least the portion of data analytics and reporting that we offer, as the next step before you feed it back and you go, okay, now I understand the results that I’ve received here, what improvements are we gonna make? And we start to cycle again, right?
So again as an example, you may start receiving data from certain videos and start saying, okay, this is the demographics and so forth, can I make some adjustments to my campaigns or to my videos or to the sequence of videos that I’m displaying? Again, I’m going back to that video on the elevator concept and optimising that, so it is part of that loop of data collection, data analysis, making decisions based on that data, and then feeding that back into the loop again.
David: When you started the company accessing data from all kinds of different data sources was very complicated and time-consuming, and you had to get all kinds of permissions and all kinds of meetings and phone calls and everything else to work it out.
One of the things that I gather has changed over the last decade or so is that most platforms now have APIs, it’s easier to get stuff out of them, and so on. So has your role lessened, or has it increased because they’re always changing and there are so many and if you’re an independent company, like a digital signage company, a software company, you have to stay on top of that, or you would use a company like ClicData that’s spending all their time doing that and making it easy?
Telmo Silva: To answer your first question, it has actually increased, right? Whereas before we would ask a vendor whether that be Facebook or Google and say, our mutual customers have data on your advertising network, right? And again this kind of can expand to any type of data vendor or data collector that we may tap into and before they would basically know it’s our data, and the consumers of course start reacting against that, right? Today, If you do not have an API, if all you do is get my data into your system, but not give me anything back in return, then I don’t want anything to do with you.
And we’ve seen backlashes at times with Facebook, Cambridge Analytics and things like that, where those types of sharing are also kinda gone another way rather, but nonetheless, today, if you do not have an API, then you’re a second-class citizen on the internet and on the software technology stack. So that is great but an API is still an API. It is a programming interface and it does require some knowledge and it’s not a standard. Just because we call it an API does not mean that they’ll follow the same standard, it’s very well organized, and it’s very well understood. So every API has its nuances, its little quirks and its own way of paging through the amounts of data that it can offer.
And so our role has actually increased due to that, because again, as I was mentioning before our connectors know how to deal with those different variations and those different formats and schemas that the data may be provided with. So in that sense, it’s actually increased the need to have a tool, like ClicData, to be able to tap into those APIs and bring it into a format that is easily digestible by any analytics tool, including our own tool.
David: How much is involved, if you wanted to do this yourself and let’s say you wanted to Integrate information from four different business system sources or whatever, within your company? Is that something that would take a morning, a month, or a year to do if they weren’t using something like ClicData?
Telmo Silva: If they were not using something like ClicData, they obviously need somebody technical, but it would take an extensive amount of time for development, and again, large companies still do that, where they write custom interfaces to bring the data and amalgamate them into one single source of truth. This is where millions of dollars are being spent on data warehousing projects and business intelligence implementations and so forth. So not having a tool like ours definitely would require a good technical team, and again, depending on the sources, potentially database analysts, database experts, SQL developers, API developers, whether they do it in Java or Python or what have you.
And then bringing all that into a data warehouse will definitely take more than just a few days. In my previous life, prior to creating ClicData, that was my bread and butter, and these projects would go on for 3-6 months. With ClicData, if we have the connector that you need or if you can configure your API connector and you have a basic understanding of APIs, you should be able to do that within a day, to connect three or four data sources and start seeing the data flow through into ClicData.
David: So on a project launch basis and certainly on an ongoing operating basis, it sounds like if you’re running a spreadsheet model on this and a business argument, it would take a huge amount of cost out of the equation and time, and these are people you don’t need to hire?
Telmo Silva: It goes on to just beyond hiring and the people behind it, because, having somebody who can accompany you if you’re not an expert or in the technical side, then it may be worth it. But the bottom line is the continuity of it as well. It’s okay to build a prototype. It works once but the next day, you don’t want to have to do the same thing, right? You don’t want to have to copy and paste the data into Excel or out of Excel again and repeat and so forth.
And also, technology is what it is, business evolves as it is, and so you always need these adjustments. It is an investment that you have to make towards being data-centric, being data-focused and to say, I want to build these systems that collect the data on an ongoing basis that I can automate the reporting that can save you time as well in reporting these numbers back to your team or your clients or your management team and all this combines into the ROI that you’re looking for, and yes, there is a technical side of it as well that there will be savings, whether it’s in consulting or in minimizing, at least the number of times that you involve them, to gain access to your data.
David: If I’m a customer, what am I buying and how am I paying for it? Do you buy an enterprise license or is it software as a service?
Telmo Silva: It is totally software as a service. We do not offer any on-premise installations of software, and this is because we want to be rapid at giving new features, new connectors. Connectors continuously change, and there’s new software in the market and we wanna be rapid in making those available. So software as a service is really our model, and what you get when you subscribe to when you get one of these subscriptions, which is monthly or yearly based, is you get basically all the connectors. You get a data warehouse, a database available to you through Microsoft Azure, that’s our partner, and you can have your data stored in over eight different regions around the world: US, Ireland, Canada, Germany, France, and a few others, and once you have that data warehouse, that’s your piece of the database there, the data starts flowing through the connectors. Once that is in your data warehouse, then from there you can actually build downstream flows, you can tap into it directly with Excel if you want, or you can use our dashboard tool to start creating dashboards and graphs and charts and tables indicators.
You can share those dashboards with other people. You can publish them to your customers, et cetera, and then you can just automate these things so that it just does that every day or every morning or every hour.
David: Is that the primary output that you would see for digital signage and digital out-of-home home networks, probably more so on the digital signage side, would be data visualizations and dashboards?
Telmo Silva: I think that would potentially be one of the use cases, analyzing the data that’s coming through and making decisions based on those as normal reporting and analytics data tools would. The other part of it and some customers of ClicData do this is they just use the collection capabilities of ClicData and the data warehouse to store their data, but then they feed that into other tools of their choice, tools that potentially they wanna do some more advanced machine learning on the data, maybe they want to write their own special code to analyze it, or maybe simply feed another system that requires this data to consume it and so forth.
ClicData is really a multifaceted tool that can be either used just for collection and aggregation of the data or all the way through to data visualization and analytics.
David: Okay, so you would have almost like templates or widgets of some kind that would be able to do develop dynamic charting and things like this based on what you select?
Telmo Silva: Absolutely, much like you would do on a pivot table in Excel, to drag and drop some columns, and the chart starts taking shape with columns, rows and so forth. That’s exactly our design, it’s very user-friendly as much as we can, we do have a lot of options for styling because not everybody likes the same styles and colors, but in essence, it’s very much an Excel-like data visualization tool built into ClicData.
David: If I’m a digital signage CMS software provider and I’m working with, let’s say a financial services company and they wanted data visualization, if I wanna put that visualized chart into a schedule, so it shows up on the digital signs around the workplace. Is that an HTML file or how do you get that up on a screen?
Telmo Silva: If you want to embed our dashboards into third-party applications, into screens, we have quite a few customers that have screens around the office, we have a railroad train station system that actually publishes our dashboards on every single station and stops with the schedules and things like that, and their performance, so are they late, etc.
So you can definitely embed that, and it’s just simply a URL. You put that inside an iFrame, inside your web page, and the iframe immediately refreshes if the data has been refreshed, so you don’t have to do anything, you just have to open it up in a browser, maximize the screen and boom, your dashboard is live and will refresh automatically.
David: Aare there any kind of limitations on how real-time it is or is it just how you wanna set it and how it works at the other end, in terms of data generation?
Telmo Silva: Our schedules have the ability to go on a minute basis to your data sources and pull the data in, however you can use our API, because we too have an API, to push data in, and in that case, the push is up to you. If you wanna send it once per second, you can. These will not be full data loads. These have to be small packets, a few rows, a few hundred rows at a time, potentially.
But you can use our API to bring in real-time data, and again, the same concept, whether we pulled it or you pushed it, everything downstream gets refreshed and gets activated for you.
David: I suspect that’s a conversation that you and your sales engineers have at times with resellers and end users, “Sure we could do real-time, but for the application you’re talking about, do you really need that, or is every minute or every five minutes fine?”
Telmo Silva: Absolutely, and this is why we stopped our schedule at one minute. Again, you have to be really in a high traffic, high volume situation, and to be able to make a decision in real-time, and that’s ultimately the key, right? It really is up to you and there’s the cost associated with you developing a push notification to other systems as well.
So it really is up to the customers, but yeah, in some sectors there are times that some folks ask for real-time when in fact, their data doesn’t change on a daily basis. Case in point, Facebook, they themselves only refresh their own metrics or expose their own metrics on a much larger time scale. So for us to do real-time with certain systems and certain data sources is just refreshing and using bandwidth for nothing.
David: Do you have to make statements and assurances around privacy of the data or that’s not really your issue, whoever’s collecting that data or you’re gathering that data is the one that’s gonna have to worry about that, you’re just enabling the use of that data?
Telmo Silva: Even though obviously data privacy and respecting the customer’s data is our number one thing, we do have a role to play. If we’re talking in Europe, GDPR is a huge thing. Every country has their own protection laws and privacy protection, like the California Data Protection Act. Every country and state and province has their own or has started some type of laws and regulations. Us being a European company, but with customers in North America, we have to be very careful. This is why we’re almost the only ones that actually are able to start your data warehouse in any country that you wish in those eight regions that we’ve mentioned, and that’s step number one, but we are a data processor for you. We don’t know what your data is, but we are processing your data for you. It’s our application, and we are responsible to make sure that there’s no external access to it, that if there are court orders, we have to make sure we validate and check them with our customers and so forth.
Luckily that has never happened, but we don’t know what your data is. So we are not able to be really responsible for it, but that’s part of our terms of service. If you put data that you are not entitled to use or process if you put data that is not legal for you to own, that’s the responsibility of our customers, but obviously, we would have a role to play in that in this GDPR system where we are responsible to at least point out or give it out if asked legally, obviously.
David: I assume you get a lot of questions around security as well.
Telmo Silva: Oh, absolutely, and again, this is why we partner with Microsoft Azure. Our expertise is really making the software intelligent, and easy to use, that it processes fast, that we can process thousands and thousands of files and sources and dashboards a day, an hour really, and not really on the physical and digital security of these data warehouses and systems. And this is why we rely on Microsoft Azure severely. We have a strong SLA with them to protect our property and our customer’s property, their data.
David: I know almost nothing about the technical side of what your company and others like it would do, but I assume that a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of security is on the Azure side and you take advantage of that and you let them worry about that, but, make sure that you’re working according to their policies, right?
Telmo Silva: Absolutely, but it also takes our knowledge to encrypt the data and to make sure that their configuration is set up correctly. I think that is the positive and negative of cloud-based systems, like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. It’s so easy these days to just start a server anywhere and start putting data into it. It’s much harder to make sure that nobody else has access to it and to make sure that it’s protected and so forth. And even within Microsoft, there are some checks and balances there as well. We can’t say, just because it’s Microsoft’s or Amazon or Google that takes care of your data, we’re pawning it off on them, and if something happens, let’s go to court.
That’s not how it should be handled. There has to be some responsibility on the people using those systems, and how we code the application, and to make sure all the settings are set up correctly. So it is a team effort between the vendors and us, and also our customers to make sure that they’re comfortable with the fact that we are ISO certified, SOC certified HIPAA compliant, et cetera. This is time and an investment on our part to make sure that they should not be just for the sake of having a stamp, on your website saying, “We are ISO certified” and that’s it. It does take effort from both companies and all parties involved to make sure that the data is secure and private.
David: So Microsoft is a major business partner, but they’re also a competitor, through Power BI?
Telmo Silva: That is correct. Power BI, their visualization tool is a competitor to our data visualization module, not necessarily to the whole ClicData platform, and they do an excellent job at it as well.
David: But I assume your company has its share of competitors, right?
Telmo Silva: I believe there’s data visualization for every type of business in the world. Power BI, Tableau, ClickView. I don’t wanna name more than three, but there are at least three hundred of them, and let’s not even go beyond those, let’s just talk about Excel, there’s some amazing visualization in Excel and it has been around for years. So there’s a lot of great experience, but again, these are tools and they are distinct separate tools, and if you have to load up Excel or Power BI or whatever every day to hit refresh, and then export it out and think about security and access, then that’s the downside of these tools. They do a great job for that initial data investigation but are terrible for the ongoing maintenance of it.
So what we say is, whereas we may not be as advanced as some of those tools, potentially. If you’re trying to do something very specific that only Power BI can do, maybe we cannot do it. The upside of using our tool is that you don’t have to do anything else. The data is there as soon as it’s refreshed, the dashboards know that the data is refreshed, it immediately sends emails out to the people that are on the list for receiving this dashboard, and they get it on their mobile app. They get an alert, whatever, right? It’s all automated for you.
So if you want to spend less time wasting copying and pasting and using Excel and these tools, then, these are the types of platforms that you need to look for.
David: I assume the other thing is that you stay on top of it because APIs change and data sets change and everything else and if you just had it developed yourself internally or if you outsourced the development, a month later, the schemas and things could change and all of a sudden it doesn’t work, right?
Telmo Silva: Absolutely. We see that with the big players obviously, Google, Instagram, Facebook, and others are constantly improving their APIs. Security keeps changing around the world. We’re phasing out certain types of security, TLS 1, TLS 2, et cetera, and APIs need the security, they need to be compatible with it. So this is really where most of our customers get their benefits is to say, okay, ClicData is taking care of all that for you, and then make sure that the data keeps coming in, and flowing into your data warehouse.
David: So if I’m a digital signage content management systems software provider, or Perhaps an AV/IT systems integrator who has an ask from clients or wants to incorporate this into their service offers, what’s involved?
What are the first questions you have to ask them? Do you support this, do you support that, or are there any really real barriers?
Telmo Silva: We start by looking at their data sources, right? If we can’t bring the data, if they’re using a very specific format of a very specific system that we cannot gain access to, typically very old ones then we’re upfront about it. We say that you’re not gonna get this data in, and you’re not gonna be able to report it.
David: It’s on a mainframe system or something?
Telmo Silva: Mainframe, believe it or not, we can connect to it. It is important for us and believe it or not, there are still a lot of customers, especially in the retail sector that does mainframe, IBM series of servers, those things that we thought don’t exist. They exist and they exist in quite a lot of companies. So we still support those. But sometimes it’s just very cryptic or the format. I cannot give you an example off the top of my head but we have this, as I mentioned before, a very robust kind of API connecting connector that takes a lot of options, and most of the time we can configure it to fit.
But yeah, if you’re a provider of data that pretty much says: I’m not giving you access. I can only give you monthly reports or something like that. Yeah, you can import those reports monthly by hand. Is that something that you really wanna do, et cetera? So we discuss alternate solutions like that.
But yeah, that would be the first step. The second step is what are their objectives? Are they looking for visualization and embedding these dashboards and putting them back to their customer in a self-service mode so they can monitor the success of their campaigns, their ads network, et cetera? Or is this internal use for analytics and so forth? So we discuss those items to make sure that ClicData is the right solution for them, and if all checks out, I think then the next step is just to get a trial account for 15 days and connect a couple of data sources, see what you can build. We have an in-app chat tool that allows them to ask questions as they go along during their trials. Ask your questions, ask how you can do things and get that first initial prototype, and that’s a big advantage of being a SaaS product, there’s no installation, you lose nothing, right? You don’t have to install or return servers. You just get started, start connecting your data and start playing around with your data and start visualizing and prototyping within your team, get success quickly, get motivated quickly as well. That’s a big part of it, and from there, you just start your subscription level.
David: What level of skill do you need?
Telmo Silva: To do complex things, you definitely need some SQL sometimes, some function programming, as you do with Excel, we are all different experts in Excel. There are those of us that use Excel just to type in numbers and your basic drag and drop, and that’s it. And then there’s those that know to do Lookups and they know a few more functions and then there’s those that do Macros in Excel, right? There are different skills, and with us, it’s the same thing. It really depends on what you need to do and how much your data needs work. So we have our own kind of Excel-like language that they can use, very similar to SQL as well. They can do a lot of things with the data.
We needed to make ClicData very powerful, and very flexible to ensure that we will not be stumped by a specific need or a specific customer request. But at the surface, we also try to make it easy with a strong UI to write those hard-to-write functions behind the scenes through an interface that is a little bit easier to use.
David: So at a minimum, you want somebody who has an interest or a knack for this sort of thing, as opposed to Margaret in Sales and Marketing saying, “Here, you do this!” and she gets the deer and the headlights look?
Telmo Silva: Absolutely. Now you can, if you have, and some customers of ours do this and they split the work of connecting and making the data available versus consuming the data, right?
You have your technical person, the person that knows the data very well to create these kinds of slices and catalogues of data and make them available to the rest of the team, and the team then goes in, either with our dashboard editor or report editor, and does their own dashboards and their own kind of visualizations or with other tools as well. So there are also those splitting of functions that sometimes are important to put in place into a company.
David: ClicData is in Northwest France based in Lille, correct?
Telmo Silva: Yeah, we have three major offices. That is our head office, the engineering office in the north of France. We have one in Toronto, Canada, and we have one in Texas so we’re all over the place a little bit.
David: So Europeans are gonna engage through your European offices and Canadians and Americans can find a couple of offices on this side of the pond?
Telmo Silva: That’s correct.
David: Where do they find you online?
Telmo Silva: ClicData.com
David: It’s important to say there’s no “k” in the click. Somebody got to it before you could get the one with the “k”?
Telmo Silva: I believe so, or maybe at that point in time, we wanted to make it very even with four and four, Clic and Data, I’m not sure.
David: Oh, they’ll find it. Thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Telmo Silva: Thank you for having me.