written for FORBES

OCTOBER, 2015

BIG DATA GOES TO WORK

Bill Tucker

Big Data. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn on the tv or stroll out onto the internet without hearing about big data solutions.

At the end of September, one of my fellow Forbes contributors published a column on 20 Mind-Boggling Facts Everyone Must Read. And they are, mind-boggling. The numbers and the volume of data listed are huge. But let’s face it, big data is truly big data. Most people can’t even grasp the concept of a Trillion, as in our federal debt is greater than $19-Trillion dollars. We know people are millionaires and some Presidential candidates are billionaires, but a trillion is one thousand billion.  What?

As a business/financial reporter, the challenge was to present data in a format so that people could grasp but it is becoming increasingly impossible. For example, the folks at EMC.com, last year estimated that data is doubling in size every two years and that by 2020 the data the create annually will reach 44 Zettabytes. 1 zettabyte equals a thousand exabytes or a billion terabytes. AH! My backup drive is 1 terabytes so 44 billion of my external drives is what we are expected to be generating in terms of new data annually at that point. See what I mean? Yeah, it’s a big pile.

The question to me isn’t how much data we create but what are we going to do with it besides be buried under the weight of it.

There is no point of having it unless we make it work. Meridium is a company that makes its money capturing big data and putting it to work. What appeals to me is that they are doing this in an industrial setting to improve operations and not in a capturing everything that can be learned about me and sold to a marketing firm sort of way. And because it is data being collected and used in this sort of setting, it makes understanding more interesting and a whole lot less irritable.

Bonz Hart is the CEO of Meridium. As we began discussing big data, he gave me an easy context in which to understand it. Once upon a time when we bought a car, we could open up the hood and understand what we were looking at; we had a general idea of how it worked and knew we could tinker with that engine on our own. Now, open up the hood of any new car and in order to understand it and how it is operating you have to plug into serial ports to get readings so that you know what is not working, what work needs to be done, whether it needs to be done now or later and when it’s done how long are you going to be without your car.

The same sort of transformation has taken place with industrial facilities. They have grown increasingly complex and yes, every machine, every pipeline, every transmission point collects data ready to be read. Reading all of that data is what Meridium does for all sorts of plants and facilities. Staying with the car analogy, this data (and there is a lot of it so it qualifies as Big Data) allows for better decision making it deciding when a plant needs to shut down for repairs, make more efficient use of up-time, output or in other words, to know what condition their condition is in. (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)

Here’s how that is working in the energy space. Dakota Gas is a coal gasification company which converts coal into natural gas and chemicals. It is the largest commercial coal gasification facility in the United States. Using big data collection, the company estimates that it has saved $8-million in maintenance and downtime.

Bruce Power, which operates the largest nuclear power generating plant in the world, works with Meridium to collect data and analyze it. The plant credits its relationship with Big Data and Meridium with allowing the plant to have safely run for more than 500 days in continuous operation.
The point, according to Hart is that we no longer have to work off a set of assumptions. The data is being generated to help manage and maintain assets.

 

Big data is more than an overwhelming concept; it’s here to stay and only getting bigger. Making it a functional reality is what we have to do with it. Big Data can lead to better safety, better environmental practices, protect brands and generate better profits. All of which is much more understandable that a zettabyte.