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Blog Hint BDA

Blog Hint BDA

Connecting the dots in big data

BDARecently, I attended the founding of the Big Data Alliance (BDA). This new Dutch organization headed by Professor Alexander Rinnooy Kan is a partnership between industry, universities and research institutions that deal with big data and its practical applications. The goal: to make knowledge applicable and to share expertise and research to stimulate innovation in the big data sector. A laudable initiative. However, I believe that in order to make two steps forward, one must first take a step back.

According to the Alliance there is much to be gained from big data and the Netherlands can take a leading role here. A new Golden Age is dawning, according to Rinnooy Kan and his associates. Already, many companies are collecting large amounts of data, but not enough is being done with it for the simple reason that the manpower is lacking and we still do not know exactly how we can extract useful information from huge databases. We have many, but often do not know exactly what to do with them and some companies are still in the dark about the tools and methods to use to discover themes or common threads within their data.

This is a pity, since data is the key to solving complex problems such as curing cancer or dike protection. But such meaningful and practical applications are still often missing in initiatives. The BDA wants to join forces to do something about it. According to the founders we can help each other by combining data sets. For example, data about traffic density can be combined with data about air quality in a given region to see whether the policies of cities to reduce car use are actually effective. The whole is more than the sum of its parts here.

For those of us in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry, the problem described by the Big Data Alliance is familiar. In our industry, and the process industries, there is plenty of talk about the promise of big data, but real, concrete, solutions are not there yet. Many asset owners in the industry are still in the dark about a structural way to get all the raw data collected by all the plants in order to analyze them and use the information to optimize production and maintenance to then create greater efficiency for the operation. According to research firm Bain & Company, the industry could improve production by six to eight percent if data were fully exploited.

Interestingly, many companies do not start with the basics and that, in my opinion, is the biggest problem. You only have something if your data is reliable and in the oil and gas world that is not always the case. Yes, much is measured: How much product goes through pipelines, which volumes are loaded for transport and delivered to the customer, the quality of these liquids and so forth, but can the plant operators rely on the measurements? Do they have the right tools? The techniques are there to unlock information from digital pipelines. Sensors are abundant at the sites, but often there is nothing to control the diagnostic data that is made available in the equipment itself. And, too often, the results of measurements are unusable. I call for a second look. Before we analyze all the data, first there is more expertise needed on how to measure properly. There can be no house without a solid foundation. And that raw data must be translated into quality data and the equipment must also be traceable to (international) standards before we can turn it into information and, ultimately, useful knowledge. Finally, this knowledge in the form of smart IT tools, has to be made available to employees within the organization.

Partnerships like the Big Data Alliance may play a role here, and our industry does well to take advantage of the opportunity. Knowledge is pre-eminently the core business of teaching and research. They lead the digital specialists on what is needed in the workplace and provide the industry with scientifically-based expertise on methods of obtaining reliable data. The realization that there is first a solid foundation necessary before big data can mean anything, is not always present at the companies we visit. This “gospel” must continue to be spread. “We’re connecting the dots,” to use the words of Rinnooy Kan. But we can only make a circle if all the ‘dots’ are in place.

In my opinion, the future means that we must share more data. From the sharing of data we all, in the end, benefit. The question is who’s going to start?

Wouter Last, President of Hint