Sustainability & Big Data

Data is the ultimate wealth of our modern era.

Digits and lines of codes allow us to do all we deem imaginable today – and even more.

Big Data, in the context of this article, is the concept of constructing ever expanding databases of information quantifying and qualifying all aspects of our operating society: from business transactions, to electricity utilization. Big data is Power, and depending on in which hands it ends-up it will be used for or against us – probably both.

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Now, setting aside dramatic intros, and looking into the realm of Sustainability.

So in Sustainability, does Big Data = Power?

The answer is yes, like in ANY other field, big data reveals correlations and behavioral patterns in our society, and it’s invaluable for feeding into Sustainability Initiatives – at the government, industry and consumer level.  


An excellent example that is likely to be implemented in the next couple of years is the smart electric grid and variable rates implementation.

Electricity Generation in the U.S. is still mostly coming from fossil fuels, thus every time we consume one watt of energy, there is an associated emission of greenhouse gas. Currently, the baseline for electricity production is a mix between fossil fuels and renewable energy, but when we’re in the peak of energy demand daily and seasonally, the energy supply required to meet the extra demand often comes from natural gas, which translates to extra GHG emissions.

In a world where the electricity grid is smart, energy consumption from an household or a commercial building is quantified instantaneously, and can react to the demand – looking into reducing energy demand during peaks, or switching to energy storage sources during peak times. If a smart grid is achieve to the individual household level, it is easy to envision how we can take this concept to the new level, where utilities can incentivize end-users (whether commercial, industrial, or households) with instant price incentives – to consume energy from the grid at low prices, and to generate energy to input to the grid at a high buying price.


In other words,

… a smart grid would give birth to a resilient grid, which will will be able to adapt, redirect, and save energy when required, base on direct readings, and on market tendencies collected through big data. Early studies show how promising increased energy efficiency achieved from a smart and resilient electric grid can be it terms of GHG emissions reduction, air pollution reduction (thus positive impact for public health), costs savings or revenues generation, and many avoided costs such as avoided outages.

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From San Diego to Paris, cities and states are engaging businesses in open-data and big data projects, paving ways for optimal solutions by using big data to enable smarter, more informed programs, services and policies. in

Applying big data to societal issues, ranging from waste management to traffic congestion to homelessness and crime prevention, is where we’re heading. And the implementations in Sustainability, such as energy/resources efficiency, cost savings, public health benefits, and economic opportunities, are promising!  

Despite these promising signals, one fundamental hurdle persists: transforming data from its largely siloed, proprietary and inaccessible format into one that is open (but secure), shared and leveraged to serve the public good.


Thus,

I’m not saying that big data is the answer, I’m not saying that the implementations are perfect, or that it’s ready to go tomorrow, cause realistically many obstacles lie ahead… what I’m saying is that the potential is significant.

Click Here to see the United Nations’ assessment on how Big Data can help sustainability.

Fancy Algorithms will Offer Unmatched Insights

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Now that you’ve read this article and that you’re inspired and in awe of what the future holds, never forget the following caveat to the big data promise. There is a line that should never be crossed with big data, and it is privacy.

Don’t get me wrong, the days where I could control where the content I voluntarily post on the web can go are long gone. Privacy in social media, and in your online presence is an obsolete concept – I get that, (and so should you)! What I’m talking about here is the data collected in the background, systematically: image recognition, business transactions, resources consumption, etc. Understand that ultra fancy algorithms can now easily retrace your whereabouts and what you’ve been up to, however divulging this information – down to the individual level – is a pure breach of privacy, that can have real devastating consequences for an individual. I’m sure that you can visualize how “Not Okay” it is to have this level of detail made “public”, even if it’s all technically out there.

That’s precisely why, being so early in the advent of Big Data, it’s important for all of us to understand the potential issues with privacy, and start having these conversations.

Get the word out!