April 2012

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Big Data, Buildings, and the Internet of Things

Big Data from Building systems must learn to share well with others.

Toby ConsidineToby Considine
TC9 Inc

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Big Data is the hot new buzz-phrase for something that buildings system integrators have long struggled with. Last Thursday (3/29), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) launched its public initiative on big data for government, the Big Data Research and Development Initiative.

The purpose of big data is to support analytics, that is the massive crunching and correlating of data to find patterns. Early targets of the initiative include:

The biggest real time use of big data in common use is click-stream and advertising analytics. This back-room technology only makes the news when there are privacy violations. Big data analytics are why Google is now in a death-match with Facebook, and why the European Union is in a privacy face-down with Google.

In government, the best known big data analytics are in security and crime prevention. Einstein systems gate all information in or out of each cabinet-level department, searching for patterns that indicate intrusion. The NSA and FBI are doing something with big data; the NSA may or may not be consolidating information on all internet communications at its Utah Data Center.

Buildings have long struggled with big data. They are not designed for storing or to processing too much. System instructions regularly warn to minimize trend reports. Product from a number of leading makers of environmental controls struggle with monitoring just a small portion of the buildings on the UNC campus. Building systems houses all aim at cloud-based analytics in their next release, but each that I have seen struggles with pushing information to the cloud. I have watched very fast networks struggling to handle data collection from a 100 buildings, and watched data edifices crack under the hundreds of gigabytes they produce each week.

We are just now entering the period in which the internet of things (IOT) becomes real, and the IOT stores its data in the cloud. Last month, Ninja Blocks (http://ninjablocks.com/) got its initial funding. Ninja blocks are consumer sensors that are as cheap as X10, and send their data to the cloud. Ninja blocks use open source hardware (download schematics from the site) to sense their environment: acceleration, temperature, current, humidity, motion, distance, sound, light and even capture video. You can create and sell your own Ninja Blocks to connect to the Ninja Cloud.

The Ninja Cloud connects this sensor information to social and cloud services. Sensor events can send tweets, SMS, or email. Ninja photos and video can move automatically into Facebook or Dropbox. The user plugs in a Ninja Block and then uses the web to develop scripts in the Ninja Cloud using point and click.

This may not be the same as energy management, but one of the more successful campus energy projects of recent years set up Facebook pages for buildings on the University of Mississippi campus. Students were encouraged to friend the buildings; systems in the buildings tweeted their energy use. The project raised Student awareness.

Ninja Blocks is a new company. They can probably do most of what they claim. Their team of entrepreneurial young engineers seems smart, quick, and committed. Their business plan is inspired using open source hardware to let others create new value sources for the Ninja Cloud. Still, I wonder whether their approach will scale well. They may hit the same wall that I have seen, when too many sensors are continuously logging too many points to the cloud.

Whether or not Ninja Blocks makes it, they are the future. Other start-ups, such as the Bluetooth-based, open source i-voltmeter will change the way we think sensors work. The data gathered by the internet of things will make its way to the cloud, where it will be Big Data. Building systems that do not participate will find themselves pushed aside.

The value of Big Data is in re-purposing and in re-use. The cost of gathering big data is going down, and will continue to go down. The Big Data from buildings will accumulate at an astounding rate. The value of Big Data will be in continuous re-harvesting for more information, the way click-streams and advertising are harvested again and again. Building operations and failure predictions are only the start.

Big Data from Building systems must learn to share well with others. This industry must consider its own version of the federal goals: open formats for data, better statistical literacy in systems, and the methods to collect and store very large volumes of data loom large. We may need to use the common semantics from Project Haystack as a common ontology for our big data. It will be mandatory to share with the Big Data from the IOT, both to accept IOT data into Building Clouds, and to send Building data into the IOT clouds, including the Ninja Cloud.

It will be a fast ride. As Ken Sinclair has long said…into the Cloud!


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