We are living in a world in which data drives almost every part of our lives. Every minute of every day, billions of bits and bytes of data from everywhere and anywhere are captured, stored, analyzed and ultimately utilized to influence human behavior in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of purposes. For example, our smartphones have and emit a unique identifier that is detectable and can be used to determine a person’s real-time location. That data is then analyzed to generate actionable insights into our habits, likes and dislikes, and various interests and activities. That data can then be used to tailor messages specifically to that person. If that sounds too intrusive, then consider this from a more positive angle – this vast store of information also may be used to make dramatic and meaningful improvements to areas that make our lives, our businesses and our physical environments safer, more efficient and more service-oriented, spanning industries and geographies.
Think about it: Our smartphone is also now our hotel room key, our car key, our credit card, our GPS map, our meteorologist, our travel planner. In order to do all this, a massive amount of data mining of the information silos in our lives must be tapped and consolidated. Take the retail industry for example. The simple act of searching for an item aisle by aisle is trackable by location-aware technology. This technology, in turn, can make sense of our route through the store, “understand” what it is we are shopping for; and suggest related or alternate products to facilitate our experience (and facilitate our expenditure of more money). Of course, the convenience of this massive data consolidation bring along increased vulnerability and risk. Consequently, data is under constant attack at the hands of criminals and other nefarious characters, but that’s an article for another day. Suffice it to say, with the convenience of enhanced technology comes a great deal of planning, anticipation and work for CIOs and IT organizations.
"Most businesses may now be defined as technology companies, with the need to gain access to data in real-time, and in a way that is meaningful, clear, and capable of driving faster business decisions"
The retail industry is not alone in witnessing the benefits and pitfalls of data. The sustainable waste and materials management industry has its own set of complexities but also the potential for amazing benefits. Here at Covanta, there is a very strong desire to expand significantly the data we collect and analyze to improve every aspect of both our business, and the businesses and lives of the customers we serve. Everything from supervising safety compliance, to managing operations and maintenance, to overseeing environmental monitoring and reporting, the Energy-from waste and materials management sector is growing increasingly sophisticated in its collection and application of data and Big Data. From inventory tracking, to sourcing and supply chain, to waste characterization and tons processed, to emissions monitoring, to truck traffic and idle times, huge amounts of disparate and varied information from systems, sensors and smart devices, is collected to be mined, sorted, analyzed and acted upon in the name of continuous improvement and customer service excellence.
At Covanta, mining data goes well beyond our own business needs. There is an increasing desire among our customer base to track, in some cases real-time, environmental information associated with a product or service. On the waste management side, we have a growing number of customers who are interested in understanding the environmental footprint of the services we provide for their specific waste stream and materials. This environmental footprint typically takes the shape of a lifecycle inventory or analysis, which requires the analyst to aggregate and make sense of data on the materials, incoming logistics and facility operations.
We already have years of expertise and knowledge built into tools like the EPA’s MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) Decision Support Tool, a robust lifecycle tool for managing materials at their end of life. However, end-of-life management is only one piece of the puzzle. Imagine rolling up environmental data over a complex global supply chain and putting that information into a format where consumers and business leaders can really begin to use quantitative environmental and social information to inform decision-making. Over the next few years, I think we can expect to see movement toward a common lifecycle data standard to facilitate this process.
A similar trend is emerging on the electricity side. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan will very likely require even more robust tracking of low carbon or renewable attributes of electricity generated. The challenge becomes even bigger with the growing trend toward distributed energy generation, which results in smaller, but more numerous, sources of electricity. Furthermore, there will be a need to include carbon intensity in dispatch algorithms. Grid operators currently dispatch power based largely on their variable cost. In a future low carbon energy system, the carbon intensity of the electricity will likely be a factor.
In all of these examples, not just big data but all IT systems will be critical not only to perform the work, but also to ensure that it is accurate and verifiable. As companies face more scrutiny on their environmental performance, whether it be for a claim made or new regulations like the Clean Power Plan, they will need the ability to demonstrate that they’ve delivered on their promise, or in accordance with their regulations.
Suffice it to say, there is a significant shift happening for the CIO and the Information Technology organization. Not only do we need to keep pace with the changes in technological capability while thwarting near-constant cybersecurity threats and attacks, but also the insatiable appetite our business has for technology is not going away. Instead, I expect it will continue to accelerate at an ever-increasing rate. Databases and data mining have been around for many years and in many forms, but it was only recently that the complexity has turned this into its own science. Most businesses may now be defined as technology companies, with the need to gain access to data in real-time, and in a way that is meaningful, clear, and capable of driving faster business decisions. This trend will only continue, therefore we in IT must maintain our focus on delivering according to business needs, while resisting the temptation to implement technology just because it’s new. We simply wouldn’t have the time even if we wanted to.