'Big Data' Creates Big Opportunities

This article is part of a series of excerpts from the fifth annual State of Green Business Report, looking at trends in corporate sustainability. Download the free report from GreenBiz.com, and see all of our trends here.

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While nearly every device is getting smaller and more efficient, information is getting much bigger and unwieldy.

Billions of bits of data are streaming in from everywhere: buildings, vehicles, manufacturers, warehouses, government agencies, credit card transactions, traffic signals, the electric grid, and just about anything else that is connected -- wired or wirelessly -- to something else. This "internet of things," as it's been dubbed, already consists of a trillion connected devices, and it's growing exponentially.

Consider: Within a decade, the number of mobile phones and devices globally will grow to more than 10 billion -- each a powerful computer capable of sending large amounts of data. Meanwhile, nearly 2 zettabytes -- that's 2 trillion gigabytes -- of data were created and stored in 2011, according to IDC. According to IBM, more than 2.5 quintillion bytes -- about 2.5 billion gigabytes -- are created every day. For companies, tracking and making sense of all this data is like drinking from a fire hose. While nearly every device is getting smaller and more efficient, information is getting much bigger and unwieldy.

Welcome to the world of "big data," the IT world's latest catch phrase. It refers to data sets too big to be accessed with traditional databases and spreadsheets. They require a new set of tools and techniques, including massive computing power, vast quantities of storage, and the human resources needed to turn it all into knowledge and action. Used well, big data can lead to accurate predictions of everything from crop yields to consumer habits. It's become axiomatic that companies' ability to harness big data will become a core competitive strategy.

Big data has big implications for sustainability. Consider, for example, the emerging smart grid, the interconnected collection of utility plants, rooftop solar panels, wind turbines, and other generation systems, along with every device in every building that uses energy. In the coming

years, hundreds of millions of households and businesses worldwide will have "smart meters" installed by their local utilities, each one spewing real-time data about energy use. Collecting and analyzing all of that data will enable utilities and grid managers -- as well as their customers -- to ensure a steady and reliable energy supply, predict rates, and make decisions accordingly. That, in turn, will better manage existing power plants, reducing the need for new ones and reducing emissions overall.

Or consider the data streaming from an office building equipped with sensors and smart devices. IBM placed more than 250,000 sensors within a 3.3 million-square-foot manufacturing site in Minnesota. It sampled only a subset of them every 15 minutes, collecting 2.15 million points of data per month. A Microsoft pilot at its Redmond, Wash., campus looked at public and private data for a subset of its buildings and gathered 500 million data points a day. All this data can allow you to make buildings more efficient and more comfortable -- if you know how to harness it.

Much of the data doesn't sit still. For example, as smart, electric-powered cars hit the roads, they'll be streaming data to and from the electric grid, IT-embedded "smart roadways," charging stations, the driver, other vehicles, and navigational equipment -- all at the same time. Collecting and crunching all this data in microseconds could go a long way toward allowing vehicles to travel hyper-efficiently and safely, saving time and fuel.

These are glimpses into the tsunami of information that's bearing down on companies, governments, and others -- the leading edge of a wave of products and services harnessing big data to reduce waste and improve efficiency, and make big profits along the way.

Binary code photo via Shutterstock.