It's easy to imagine, going by all the attention given to big data, that we're all swimming in data. The challenges of data today are usually seen as being around management, exploitation, security. But a recent New York Times story brings a reminder how this isn't the case. In some areas there's plenty of data – in others, there's surprisingly little. (March 17 Opinion)
The piece in question is about water use. You might think the water industry has a good handle on how much water is being used, where, and when. Conservation and management of water resources have made a huge contribution to the economic and social development of the US. We've invented technologies and blasted through mountains to bring water (and hydro power) to the population.
But there's no second by second stream of data about water utilization. Instead, once every five years, a report is issued. The report covers use in just one year. So the data is always partial, and always out of date.
Charles Fishman notes how the federal government wants to improve water management and avoid the droughts plaguing many parts of the nation. He says data is the key. He points to how comprehensive data about energy use is collected and disseminated. And he makes three excellent points about data's power to create change.
First, when you start to use data as the basis for decision making, it increases demand for new information. People see how much more they can do when they are better informed. They start to call for more data resources. It's as if the first data streams shine a light on a target area. People see the beneficial effects, and they want to spread the light.
Second, Fishman says, “good data changes behavior”. This is the “smart meter” argument. Once you see how much you're using a resource – and what it's costing you – you can make changes to benefit your pocket, and possibly the planet.
And Fishman's third point has maybe the most resonance across all our lives today: “Data ignites innovation.” This “ignites” idea is very important. You may not envision a real-world application that requires a certain data source. But once the data source is available, the application(s) become apparent. Fishman says: “Who imagined that when most everyone started carrying a smartphone, we’d have instant, nationwide traffic data? The phones make the traffic data possible, and they also deliver it to us.” This is exactly right. A “phone” was something you talked on. It's the availability of satellite data, together with the means of receiving and processing it, that sparked the innovation.
I think we should be leaning on this third argument for data a lot more than we have done in the past. Business managers are somewhat burdened with a tradition about business cases. You're required to justify decisions by modeling a future outcome – an outcome you can already define, and quantify. Innovation doesn't work like that. It can't. So, we should be saying: Produce the data and see what happens.
I know we're all reluctant to say “build it and they will come”. But we've got to get over that. We owe it to the future. As a side note, I'll add that not-for-profit internet organization Nominet presented their work on a flood sensor network to an ACORD innovation forum in London back in April 2015. Their sensors are cheap to make and install. They're already giving a highly granular picture of water levels at very low cost. The technology to collect water data is proven and affordable.