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How to Use Free External Data Sources for Your BI Advantage

By May 13, 2014Article

Businesses today are keenly aware of the many free external data sources floating around the Internet and how this data, if utilized correctly, can completely transform their understanding of businesses, markets, audience and more. The problem is many businesses don’t know how to leverage the data once they get their hands on it. By using a simple business intelligence tool, your business can easily combine third-party data sources — no matter how many or how big — with your current internal data, analyze it and gain incredible insights as the new information makes your business calculations significantly more accurate. 

Though large corporations have been doing this for years, today it is not just enterprise companies that can afford and benefit from business intelligence and analytics tools, which have become a common strategy among most data-driven businesses today. 

The primary goal of implementing business intelligence software is to gain a strategic business advantage by discovering the most important trends and opportunities within all existing data available at that very moment. Typical data sources include on-premises data from systems such as ERP and help desk plus cloud sources such as Salesforce, Google Analytics, etc. However, most organizations do not take advantage of data beyond those generated by the company itself. And in reality it’s the external sources that can add the most competitive value. 

Here are some examples of how to use free external data sources to your advantage and what kind of data is out there. With some creative thinking and a bit of research, you’ll be able to use these data sources to improve your company’s analytics and decision making processes. 

Contact data: Polish a killer pitch and uncover new segments 

Sales and marketing departments are likely to gain the most by mashing up third-party data about their prospects and customers. For example, offers detailed information on over 40 million business contacts and 200 million company profiles worldwide, containing more than 90 fields. 

A similar source for contact and company data is LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network with 227 million users spanning 200 countries and territories and available in 20 languages. Imagine the advantage your sales team can have by gaining access to basic information about a lead before contacting a prospect or when prioritizing sales calls. No precious time would be wasted on the routine and often distracting introduction questions, that’s for sure. 

This data also transforms the way businesses carry out customer segmentation and analytics. Instead of limiting segmentation to internal fields such as “geographic location” or “products purchased,” you can achieve more strategic segmentation based on external data such as industry and company size. 

By incorporating data from CrunchBase, one of the most widely used databases of technology companies, people and investors, any company can easily build automated target lists focusing on very specific niches, such as: telecommunication startup companies that have raised at least $10 million and have more than 50 employees. As another example, investors can use data from CrunchBase in an investor dashboard that analyzes investments, acquisitions and startups for financial companies and entrepreneurs, helping them make the smartest investments possible. 

For a small price, B2C marketers can go further by leveraging data from sources such as Rapleaf. (While you can create a temporary free account at Rapleaf, if you want to use it long term, there is a small fee.) By linking Rapleaf’s rich consumer data to internal customer records linked by email address, business users can ask questions such as:

  • What customer age groups spend the most on our products or buy the most frequently?
  • How does household income impact the products that customers buy?
  • How does gender, marital status or occupation affect purchasing trends?
  • What product categories do our customers purchase from other companies? 

This degree of customer segmentation and analysis can help drive more effective decision-making in key areas such as marketing and product mix management. 

Government data: Tap into the big numbers (and reuse your tax dollars) 

Governments collect and offer a vast array of data for the sole purpose of helping us, the people and the businesses that make up a country. They’ve spent the resources (and your tax dollars) compiling the data, and the extent of data available is a jackpot for savvy businesses. 

Public information with such a large array of data can help people build new businesses, generate revenue, compare communities, develop new products, conduct research and so much more. Government data will answer questions such as where to place a new business, what products in a specific industry are growing, what is the economic activity of a specific area, etc. 

When using business intelligence tools, it’s remarkably easy to combine these large data sources with your own data, and the possibilities for deriving strategic business value are unlimited. 

As a creative example, Coca Cola’s Share a Coke campaign in 2013 replaced the Coca Cola logo on its bottles with 250 different first names in several European countries. The massive soda company relied solely on government name data to select the names to use in each country’s campaign. The campaign was enormously successful as customers got a kick out of buying a Coke bottle with their own name or with the names of loved ones on it. Had the names been uncommon, the campaign would have been a flop. 

By mashing up different combinations of government data sources with your own data, the benefits are exponential and are limited only by your creativity. To get your creative juices flowing, try browsing these lists of available online government data sources:

  • Open Data Showroom
  • Open Government Data Catalogues
  • ProgrammableWeb
  • U.S. Government APIs 

Weather data: Generate revenue by having what people need when they need it 

Most people don’t give much thought to weather reports beyond deciding how to dress in the morning or whether or not to take an umbrella to work. However, mashing up weather data with corporate data can provide both strategic insight and decision-making support. For example, data analysts at Wal-Mart combined historical weather data with sales histories to discover the products that fly off store shelves before severe weather conditions reach an area. 

Beyond the expected sales increases in products like flashlights, batteries and bottled water, they discovered some other interesting trends. They discovered that, prior to a hurricane’s arrival, sales of strawberry Pop-Tarts are seven times higher than normal, while beer is the top-selling pre-hurricane item. Likewise, in the days following a storm, stores typically ran out of a number of dry food products. 

Wal-Mart now regularly uses weather data to increase stocks of a long list of products in stores that lie in the path of hurricanes and other inclement weather patterns. Sophisticated managers at shopping malls, amusement parks, tourist attractions and similar venues integrate weather data to understand the effects of temperature, rainfall and other weather conditions on their business. This allows them to dramatically increase revenues and reduce costs by optimizing the planning of key activities such as advertising and staffing. 

Numerous sources of weather data are available online. Here are some examples:

  • NOAA National Climatic Data Center
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • Raw Weather Data
  • Weather Underground
  • WeatherBug
  • WeatherSpark 

Bottom line 

Modern business intelligence and analytics tools make it incredibly easy for non-technical users to combine numerous large, external data sources with their existing data and build insightful reports and dashboards from that combination. The results are often stunning. These mash-ups dramatically enhance the value of your data and provide tremendous additional insight to give your business a strong competitive advantage. 

Saar Bitner is the VP of marketing at SiSense, the award-winning business analytics software that lets non-techies easily analyze and visualize Big Data sets from multiple sources. With more than a decade of marketing, sales and product management experience, Saar now leads the global marketing efforts of SiSense. He executes data-driven strategies while strengthening the SiSense brand, as he makes way for the massive growth predicted in the upcoming years. Follow him at






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