The Data Mill

Big data gets personal about environmental pollution

Nicole Laskowski, Senior News Writer

Is Chicago O'Hare Airport becoming O'Herd? The Windy City terminal has turned to goats to trim hard-to-reach acres of land at O'Hare. The critters help cut down on environmental

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pollution and just might help the City of Chicago save money.

Nicole Laskowski

Baa-humbug? Not at all, according to Ralph Menzano, executive director of global transportation industry solutions for Oracle Corp. He relayed the tale at Boston's third annual Big Data Summit, an event sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) that featured big data hot shots from Xerox, Zipcar and Optum Labs. (Yes, there is a data connection to the goats!) It seems that as the seas rise and temperatures flare, sustainability has become a hot topic at the nation's airports.

"Each of the top 50 has a position called sustainability officer, measuring emissions every day," Menzano told the crowd at the summit, where the topic was how big data will help people live longer and healthier lives in cleaner, more sustainable cities.

Big data is helping airports keep tabs on things like carbon emissions and pushing other transportation industries to make CO2 a personal matter. At Zipcar, a car-sharing network in Boston, Mass., big data efforts are afoot to break down the company's data on individual drivers the way the utility companies do -- by usage. Zipcar users may soon be able to see what impact their driving has on the quality of air, said Brian Harrington, chief marketing officer for Zipcar. "We're at the macro level right now, but I want to get to the personalized/individualized level, and I think that's possible."

Some major U.S. cities have already figured out how to connect those dots. San Francisco, Pittsburg, Indianapolis and Los Angeles are cutting down on air pollution by using sensor technology to help drivers find empty city parking spots via mobile applications -- thereby cutting down on the dreaded circling of the block. It's a win-win for the city and the driver, Menzano said, because in some cases the apps can also play the role of virtual meter maid; they can send alerts when a meter is about to expire and extend a payment option to avoid a potential parking ticket.

Priming the tech talent pipeline

While airports and car companies and cities are using big data to make their operations more sustainable, the tech industry is working on another kind of sustainability. Technology companies, we were told by the summit speakers, are banding together with state officials to make sure we sustain our pipeline of big data talent. Here in the Bay State, a partnership of educational and technological organizations called MassCAN -- or the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network -- is advocating for an overhaul of the state's public school curriculum to include more computer science and technology classes. Supporters include some of the biggest names in tech: Google Inc., Microsoft, Oracle Corp. and Intel Corp.

All four companies recently sent representatives to the Massachusetts State House to explain how thousands of jobs go unfilled by American workers due to a dearth of technology skills. According to the Boston Globe, the tech behemoths are prepared to fork over some funding to the public schools for training and new equipment. Shouldn't there be an Apple for the teachers too?

More on big data analytics

Visualization tools are critical to big data but are still immature

Big data analysis is my new best girlfriend

Data presentation goes to the movies

Cliff Notes for big data

A picture is worth a thousand words? For big data consumers, it can be more like a picture requires a thousand words. Visualizations and big data might be a match made in heaven, or so the gurus keep telling us, but do they go far enough? Summit speaker Sophie Vandebroek, chief technology officer and president of Xerox Innovation, doesn't think so, as big data visualizations can also turn out complex and layered graphics that are difficult to consume.

Vandebroek, who focused on the health care industry, urged IT departments to figure out how to tie big data to an actionable next step -- or what she called a "prescriptive recommendation." Xerox, no surprise, thinks it has the right medicine for the problem -- at least for big data analytics in health care research. Built for health care facilities, the company's Midas+ platform can churn through patient data and apply predictive analytics to help medical professionals make better decisions on patient care. The example she gave was picking out patients who are likely to be readmitted to the hospital if they are discharged too early -- thus erasing the costs saved by booting them out.

Martin Fleming, chief economist and vice president of business performance services at IBM and the keynote speaker at the Big Data Summit, reminded audience members that this and other big data tools are not foolproof.

"All of the tools we create … are intended to make recommendations as to how decision makers and leaders can act," he said, "but good judgment should also be applied."

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.


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