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Business Trends

Japan Inc. shares precious big data to boost productivity

Seven & i leads swap of information on customers, passengers and phone users

Customer visit data from Seven-Eleven convenience stores could help parent Seven & i target areas to beef up online supermarkets.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese businesses will share industrial data with members of other sectors and even direct rivals in hopes of boosting productivity overall, through a private initiative led by retailer Seven & i Holdings and a separate government platform.

Advances in artificial intelligence enable companies to use so-called big data in ways they could not before, to seek deeper understanding of customer behavior. For instance, pooling information from Seven & i's 23 million daily customer interactions and mobile provider NTT Docomo's network of 76 million mobile subscribers could help pinpoint areas where everyday shopping is inconvenient, which would help with planning the expansion of online supermarkets. Combining knowledge of people's movements and tastes could also help with building attractive towns and planning store locations.

From June, Seven & i -- the department store operator and parent of convenience store giant Seven-Eleven Japan -- will link up with nine other companies, including Docomo, railway operator Tokyu, trading company Mitsui & Co. and megabank Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group. The retailer will launch a research body Friday to advance discussions on sharing and commercializing data.

To begin with, Seven & i will share data with other companies on a one-on-one basis and release the findings of their analyses to all participants. The companies will also consider a unified mechanism for sharing data, and will invite other businesses to join the initiative. The data will be filtered to mask personal information in light of concerns over privacy.

Japan Post -- the mail services unit of the privatizing Japan Post Holdings -- and maritime shipper Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, plus others, including Mitsui E&S Holdings arm Mitsui E&S Machinery, will share information on vessel operations. Data on how weather affects engine performance, for instance, could help with developing energy-efficient and self-piloting ships.

Major oil wholesalers, including JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy, the JXTG Holdings arm, and Idemitsu Kosan, aim to promote effective maintenance inspections by contributing information on pipe corrosion at refineries, for instance. Even competing companies will share portions of their knowledge in hopes of trimming waste, letting them focus resources like funds and personnel on their bread-and-butter fields.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will also create a platform for companies to share manufacturing know-how and other data. Those that pitch in will be eligible for subsidies, as well as tax breaks thanks to special legal provisions geared at boosting productivity that may take effect as soon as June.

In Germany, sharing data to improve production is becoming more and more common, such as with companies exchanging information on factory robots' operating conditions to boost efficiency. While Japan's inter-factory competition is considered an industrial strength, the country has been slow to achieve such sharing between businesses, though the government has encouraged it.

Technological prowess and brand power have long been considered the core of a business's value. But as the economy continues to digitize, data resources have become a key factor as well.

In June 2017, Japan's Fair Trade Commission declared that while amassing and using data can spur competition, if information is monopolized in a way that stifles competition, that activity can be regulated under antitrust law. That suggests the benefits of data need to be shared industrywide.

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