3rd October 2017

The fascinating ways in which Big Data is being harnessed by all manner of industries, cities and other groups

As increasing swathes of people, cars, cities, homes and the things in them become connected, a massive amount of data is generated and more and more organisations are realising the benefits of storing, interpreting and utilising this information to positive effect. Outside Trak Global Group’s own primary sector – the automotive industry – we periodically catch up with the latest strides involving Big Data – and once again it’s clear that its uses are incredibly diverse.

Patients undergoing orthopaedic procedures will find some comfort in knowing that big data helps surgeons work more precisely towards more predictable outcomes, while hospitals are recognising the cost benefits. Australia, Sweden and the UK are at the forefront of orthopaedic registries and databases, enjoying high capture rates compared to the US where data collection is voluntary. With patients increasingly being provided with electronic devices rather than clipboards, willingness to provide feedback is on the rise and the ensuing data is more systematic even if sceptics feel it may not always be accurate. Researchers are able to connect remotely with secure databanks, speeding up the locating of sometimes time-sensitive medical knowledge and helping hospitals work towards preventative measures including rare diseases. Big data is also enabling orthopaedic care to be personalised per patient, minimise their stays in hospital and, in extreme cases, indicate whether amputation or limb salvage would be more appropriate. Elsewhere in healthcare, sophisticated algorithms are being used to diagnose diseases, flag up patients who are at increased risk of developing sepsis, and assist with the interpretation of pathology slides, while computers are working more thoroughly than human professionals at analysing heartbeats over longer periods to reduce sudden cardiac-related deaths.

Anyone living in or having visited rural Cheshire not all that far from Trak Global Group’s Crewe headquarters may well have heard of the Jodrell Bank radio astronomy facility. It’s a field of science set to undergo a boom thanks to new telescopes that are on the verge of being deployed. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in the west of the country will run a project called the Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) that will increase data collection sources by over 35 times by viewing huge areas of the sky at once courtesy of revolutionary ‘phased array feed’ technology. Australia will orchestrate additional new telescopes in India, South Africa, the Netherlands and the US. In recent historical terms, technology has been gathering data on objects in our universe much faster than astronomers are able to actually analyse it, but this is changing as intelligent computers become able to ‘learn’, enormously assisting astronomers identify new discoveries amongst perabytes of data, better understand super-massive black holes and open up other areas of astronomy like never before.

Life is so busy for many people these days that finding the time to shop for new clothes can sometimes prove off-putting, so British luxury fashion brand Burberry has turned to big data and AI to boost customer satisfaction and increase sales. Data shared voluntarily through customer rewards and loyalty programs, along with information gleaned from customers’ social media feeds, enables stores and their assistants to identify shoppers walking in who have recently purchased a certain coat, for example, and to then recommend ideal accessories such as handbags or scarfs. RFID tags have also been fitted to Burberry’s products in store, enabling shoppers to be informed on how items can be worn and cleaned and even where they were produced. Using technology to essentially allow their bricks and mortar stores to operate similarly to the brand’s website has resulted in repeat custom rising by 50%. Similarly, Coca Cola, one of big data’s first major champions, used AI and insight to launch new flavour Cherry Sprite after their self-service mix-your-own drinks fountains highlighted that they would be onto a winner. Adaptive vending machines will soon be a reality, changing according to their surroundings, the weather and even the mood of people in the vicinity.

The illegal dumping of waste is a global problem that angers and saddens the majority of people, but big data scientist Dr Wilson Lu Weisheng is helping Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department to tackle the blight through gritty field work and a clever analytical model he has developed. With six years’ worth of data on truck visits to landfill sites to analyse, data-mining was the only feasible solution, helping his team pinpoint 442 cases of ‘highly suspicious’ waste disposal activity out of over 7.8 million trips by around 10,000 vehicles. According to the WWF, wetland ecosystems have been destroyed due to illegally filling fish ponds over the last twenty years, the issue having made news headlines. In Europe, credit card fraud has been addressed by using a technique called decision-tree modelling, and Lu utilised the same method in his efforts to reduce fly-tipping. Using video captured showing half a dozen trucks illegally dumping waste, he developed six indicators which he then paired with a control group of legally-operated trucks, the resultant analytical model able to be trained to filter out suspicious cases. Client numbers, distances involved, queuing times, project types and geographical location were all involved in Lu’s initial work and he now aims to widen the parameters to identify more cases.

Mobility solutions, air quality and societal trends within cities receive plenty of attention in the media and China’s massive bike-sharing impetus is throwing up some revealing insights. With more than 130 million users turning to 70 brands to ride over 16 million bicycles, it’s a given that a mountain of data is being generated, with technology behind schemes such as Beijing’s enabling customers to use GPS to identify the nearest bike, which could be anywhere, and then pedal away after simply unlocking it using a QR code. Analysis both quantitative and qualitative has led to one key provider, Mobike, identifying that customers aged 60-to-70 typically rely on cycle-sharing primarily to reach restaurants and shops and that retired males cover the longest distances and ride the fastest, for example. Bike-sharing is certainly set to reduce pollution in many of the world’s major cities including several in China, whilst saving energy, lessening congestion and improving public health, and many cycle schemes are now being integrated with other transport networks and mobility solutions.

Disaster recovery is also benefitting from the IoT, big data and related technologies, at a time when hurricanes Harvey and Maria will be fresh in many people’s minds. Emergency and resource dispatch in disaster zones around the world is being boosted by crowdsourcing and the utilisation of apps like Zello, which functions like a ‘walkie talkie’, enabling dispatchers and volunteers to communicate to countless others in real-time, coordinating efforts more efficiently and keeping teams better protected against imminent dangers. Big data along with sensors, computing power and satellites are used to more accurately predict where such storms are likely to hit, to form optimal evacuation strategies and coordinate aid provision in a more targeted manner, ultimately saving increasing numbers of lives each time a disaster strikes.

From just this relatively modest clutch of new developments and success stories it’s clear that the storage and interpretation of increasingly large volumes of data is reaping many benefits not just for corporations but also for communities and the planet we live on.