Data growth is always bad news, isn’t it?
You’d probably think all data growth is evil after my last two blogs1. I laid out how uncontrolled data growth was bad for your carbon footprint, bad for your risk exposure and bad for your budget. Unrestrained collection of personal data means it’s also bad for your privacy, too.
There’s an old saying ‘You can’t see the wood because of the trees’2, and this is all too often the case when it comes to data. We have so much of it, we can’t see or find the data that matters. Which, ironically, is a problem we won’t have for much longer with actual forests, given the way we’re working at deforestation.
Controlled and smart data growth can, however, be good for our planet. It already has been – we’d have wrecked the ozone layer without the satellite data collected decades ago that led to an unusually successful global effort. In the future our ability to collect and process even more data will be transformational, and we’ll absolutely need it to help us meet climate goals if we’re to sort this mess out.
The main reason we know where the climate emergency will take us is down to the digital modelling3 of our world. Due to our ability to collect ever more granular data, these models have got better over time. It’s allowed us to shift from a debateable ‘we think’ to a level of certainty that we can now say ‘there’s no doubt’. And digital models are driving change everywhere, in lots of positive ways.
Twins – but not the Schwarzenegger and DeVito kind
If you’ve ever seen the film Twins, where the two actors above played genetically engineered twins, you might think that ‘digital twins’ bear as much resemblance. You’d be wrong.
Machine learning and AI’s ability to process data has progressed so much in a relatively short time. We can use it to drive engineering efficiencies that improve reliability and extend the working life of all kinds of components. Aircraft engines once had 8-10 sensors, now they have many thousands, and data collected from them leads to all sorts of improvements. In a similar fashion, trains can create multiple terabytes of data in a relatively short space of time. Sensor tech has changed too – it’s not just about temperature, pressure, motion, or speed anymore, it’s now also about what machines can ‘see’, too.
This allows us to design better stadiums, model more efficient cities and transport systems, and make them smarter. Combining all these sensors with reliable networks means we can understand how events or extremes applied in the digital world, to a twin, will play out in the physical world. And what’s even more exciting is the capacity to use AI to do this in real-time, allowing us to react and avoid dangerous or wasteful situations arising in the first place.
It’s not all about avoiding a disaster or an extreme situation in a big, smart city though. AI running all the time in the background will have an increasing direct benefit on sustainability, pretty much everywhere. Things such as energy efficiency, optimised use of resources and limiting waste production can work in buildings, manufacturing plants, hospitals, Universities, or pretty much anywhere. Google famously pointed its own AI tech at datacentre cooling4 and saved 40% on its cooling bills, which produced a corresponding reduction in CO2.
IoT and 5G – they’re not just hype
While my angle in this blog centres on data, data relies on many components before it can be collected and used, and the two biggest deals here are the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G. I can almost hear many of you thinking ‘5G? How many folks really have access to that???’
Right now, the real deal about 5G for many of us is the infrastructure changes to support it – the cables and switches that get the data to and from the 5G masts. It’s not just had an incremental upgrade; it’s all getting a mammoth one. This extra capacity is what’s allowing AI and sensor data to help us radically change things, and it’s happening even if you can’t get (or don’t use) a 5G signal yourself just yet. Many cities are already smarter than you think and 5G will allow them to get smarter. Really smart.
Sustainability doesn’t have to be a cost centre
There’s a lot of negative talk about how much it costs to be sustainable. It will vary by what business you’re in of course – there will be losers. That said, I’m a great believer that every organisation has a chance to change and for many, sustainability will have a cash benefit, not a cost. So, sticking to my data theme, what can you do?
In closing I’ll say that we’re heading for exciting changes in this area, and while AI, IoT and 5G get all the hype, our old friend data is what’s making it all happen. And the best part? For those of you so inclined, you can play a part too. If you want to experiment with actual data as a Citizen Data Scientist, there are many open-source libraries you can access – often published by higher education establishments or local governments (even smart city data) and by commercial organisations. As a commercial entity, you could even tap into this community yourself5.
For those less analytically inclined, there is an ever-growing number of ways to participate in Citizen Science6 and play your part as a (really) smart sensor – something your kids can enjoy too. Data isn’t always good or useful, but the good stuff has the possibility to be priceless to us all.
2: Changed slightly for ease of understanding, the actual saying is ‘You can’t see the wood for the trees’ https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/cant-see-the-wood-for-the-trees (link also explains the US variation)
3: Diagnosing Earth: the science behind the IPCC’s upcoming climate report, Aug 2021 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02150-0
4: AI for data center cooling: More than a pipe dream, Datacenter Dynamics, April 2021
5: How to Use Citizen Data Scientists to Maximize Your D&A Strategy, Gartner, June 2021
6: Citizen Science Provides Useful Data For Sustainable Development Goals, International Study Shows, Forbes, July 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffkart/2020/07/15/citizen-science-provides-useful-data-for-sustainable-development-goals-international-study-shows/