Make travel elementary, dear Watson

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WATSON AVATARData. It comes at travelers and agents from myriad sources: flight schedules, consumer travel preferences, ticketing systems, identification tags on baggage, airport operations, reviews on travel sites. The list goes on.

We can measure, monitor and manage much of it in real time, but making sense of all the data and using it to make real-time decisions to improve the travel experience can be a difficult proposition.

Today, algorithms are used to handle complex scheduling and pricing models. Analytics can help predict demand. Software can help carriers proactively manage assets and infrastructure to prevent issues before they occur.

As we enter an era of "big data," advanced technology can help businesses more easily make use of the mountains of information that are available. Having the precise information at your fingertips can bring new insight into solving problems or improving business.

The possibility of some of these advanced technologies was on display recently as millions of people watched an IBM computing system named Watson compete against two of the greatest "Jeopardy" champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

More than just winning a quiz show, Watson represents a major step forward in how we can make sense of and use huge amounts of information.

IBM researchers were able to build a computing system that rivals a human's ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence. It searches through and analyzes millions of pieces of information and provides the best answer based on the evidence it finds.

IBM WATSONThink about it. The ability to analyze the meaning and context of human language and quickly process information to suggest answers to questions posed in natural language could help airlines and travel providers turn the challenge of big data into opportunities, ones that transform their businesses.

How do you adjust your operations when you are faced with an unforeseen event like the Icelandic volcano eruption that put travel and air traffic at a standstill? Operators could query a Watson-like system that incorporates a vast amount of data sources to help them determine the best way to reroute planes or cargo with the least service disruption, adjust a complex network of schedules accordingly to minimize delay, consider other outside factors and more.

Technology like this has the possibility to transform the customer experience for travelers.

Much of travel, from planning to customer interactions, revolves around "real language" that isn't coded for a computer. An airline ticketing agent could use Watson-like technologies to help determine, in real time, the most appropriate way to handle a change in service.

Over time, a Watson-like system could learn, based on previous travel history, what a customer's preference is. This could enable an airline, for example, to better determine the best combination of products and services to offer that directly correlate with a traveler's needs and preferences. Offerings that reflect the personalized needs of a customer could turn a traveler into a more frequent and loyal customer.

Travelers could even see positive benefits from a system like Watson. Imagine how the technology could positively affect the ease and experience of how we plan travel.

Traveling today often requires intricate planning. You must factor in an ever-increasing amount of choices. Multiple modes of transit might be required, which transportation hub is most convenient or closest to your destination, an array of departure and arrival times, accommodations, budget requirements, weather and more.

A recent survey found that 20% of travelers spend five hours or more shopping for and booking their travel. That's likely more time than they spend on a flight.

A Watson-like system could help us sort through all of the scenarios and then refine them to share what the best option might be when faced with such a vast amount of choices.

The possibilities are limitless. What's next? It will be exciting to see how Watson might help translate some of the travel industry's challenges into its biggest opportunities.

Marty Salfen is general manager of travel and transportation for IBM.

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