‘Big Data’ – Indigestion or Innovation?

With Facebook having recently logged in its billionth user, social networking has undoubtedly become the ultimate source for ‘Big Data’. Does the possession of gargantuan amounts of data provide a guarantee for success or failure? …success from getting the right information to the right person at the right time or failure from not knowing how to manage so much data?  

To get an idea what ‘Big Data’ means to Facebook, visualize a system that handles 6 million photo uploads, 160 million newsfeed stories, 5 billion realtime message exchanges, 10 billion profile photos shown, and 108 billion queries — every 30 minutes! Impressive by today’s standards, but not for long, for what is coming next, better known as the ‘Industrial Internet’ as opposed to the ‘Social Internet’, will very likely generate orders of magnitude more data than the social-driven ‘Big Data’ we have today.

Facebook vs ‘Panelbook’
For the sake of argument, let us consider a machine-version of Facebook, one that we will call ‘Panelbook’, where ‘Panel’ refers to the ‘face’ or screen used to operate a machine. At ‘Panelbook’, machines rather than people would ‘socialize’ with their fellow machines by exchanging lots of data,  24/7. For example, a smart meter in your home would collect data from your appliances and relay messages back to the manufacturing plant (i.e. GE) where more machines using algorithms to assess its condition might issue alerts to yet more machines including, perhaps, the homeowner’s smartphone. Don’t expect uploads of photos of machine-tikes in diapers any time soon on ‘Panelbook’, but you can get the point.  ‘Big Data’ in the ‘Industrial Internet’ will undoubtedly dominate ‘Big Data’ from the ‘Social Internet, a trend that CEOs and industry leaders should take close heed when allocating corporate resources.

At a recent annual technology conference called EmTech 2012, CEO’s, innovators, investors, academics, entrepreneurs, and major industry players gathered at MIT’s Media Lab to hear the industry’s thought-leaders share their best practices, comment on trends, and recommend new ideas. I felt that their various presentations on ‘Big Data’ barely scratched the surface of what potentially lies ahead. ‘Big Data’ is more than just an onslaught of information to be managed and disseminated but is also the fluid mosaic of the constantly changing faces of the Internet, its increasing number of users, and its collective implications on our growing societies.

To make some sense of  ‘Big Data’ today (indigestion or innovation), I organized four presentations from the event in a specific order to emphasize their complementary roles in the ongoing transition of ‘Big Data from ‘social’ to ‘industrial’ data. They are mission critical data, faster access to data, and organically generated data to trigger innovation.  Notice in each description how each role has influenced areas of society that have had to react to an ever growing number of new capabilities. As one might expect, these roles will continue to evolve, causing even more changes, as nothing on the Internet remains in its current state for long.

Siemens – Mission Critical Data
Leading the charge for ‘Big Data’ was none other than the CEO of Siemens Industry Sector, USA, Dr. Helmuth Ludwig who spoke of the crucial role ‘Big Data’, played with the Curiosity vessel that landed on Mars earlier this year. On the vessel are thousands of probes that monitor more probes that eventually release a signal back to NASA’s base station where receiving probes are monitored by more probes. Managing massive amounts of data from probe to probe is one challenge, but doing so flawlessly so tasks are performed perfectly each time, requires a well-trained and coordinated workforce of global experts who must use a common digital platform to share their data. For example, some of the parameters released by NASA to its contractor JPL and others for Curiosity’s landing on Mars included an entry speed of 13,000 miles per hour with an atmosphere one hundred times thinner than earth, a time frame of less than 7 minutes to touchdown and only a two-week window per year for launching from earth.

According to Ludwig, more and more projects will resemble the risk profile of Curiosity and the type of workforce needed to execute mission-critical projects. To that end Siemens currently spends over $500 million to train 1.2 million students per year. They also sponsor $100,000 rewards for innovation contests to encourage STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) career interest at both the high school and college levels.

Qualcom – Faster Access
Less on mission critical data and more on making room for more data through existing resources, Qualcom’s CTO, Matt Grob, focused on catapulting today’s 3G, 4G, and WiFi data capacities to 1,000 times faster access speeds by collating a clever topography of mini cell towers controlled by readily available  interference management technology. Overlapping signals from one tower to another would be automatically tweaked at just the right time to deliver an optimal throughput. The amounts of ‘Big Data’ to get the signals just right, are truly a task for machines. One can only imagine what new apps will emerge from an almost incomprehensibly faster mobile web connection, 1000x faster!

Iridium – Mission Critical Data and Faster Access
For ‘Big Data’ to be mission critical and responsive Matt Desch, CEO for Iridium, discussed his firm’s challenges with a global phone service that relies on an interconnected canopy of 66 orbiting satellites.  No matter where a call originates with an Iridium global phone, an Iridium satellite is no further than eight minutes away to pickup incoming signals and relay them to a central base station in Phoenix Arizona where calls are connected.

Iridium has reserved seven rocket launches from SpaceX to replace its aging fleet of satellites. The new fleet due by 2016 will unleash exciting apps including a top-down aircraft surveillance system that can save fuel by allowing planes to fly closer together and away from bad weather systems. At the end of his presentation, Desch held up a thumbnail-size ‘Iridium’ chip that enables any device to connect to its network including existing mobile phones. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, airline passengers will be able to make calls from their ‘Iridiumized’ mobile phones while in flight.

Xerox – Using ‘Big Data’ to Innovate
‘Big Data’ is not just about the collection of random data but also about the organic creation of more data.  The CTO at Xerox, Ms. Sophie Vandebroek, taps on ‘Big Data’ for innovation by treating its workforce as data points and deliberately mixing and matching unlikely pairs of experts to see what can happen. Xerox believes that innovation evolves when experts from different fields of study can look inward at a problem and lend a relevant suggestion. However, hitting a home run is analogous to winning a lottery ticket. For this reason, Xerox and other companies like Shell International with their “Game Changer” program encourage their participants to be critical from the out start and seek the fastest routes to failure before committing to a new idea.

In Summary
‘Big Data’ offers so many options for companies that without a clear set of objectives CEOs could run up huge losses from negative investment returns. Similar to chasing the end of a rainbow, ‘Big Data’ can become elusive, misleading, and overwhelming. One distinction that became clear from the EmTech 2012 conference was the growing importance of the Industrial Internet where machines communicate with other machines. Although the social data is useful for understanding markets and spotting new trends, industrial data is by far the platform-of-choice for what soon will become the ‘BIGGER DATA’.

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