April 2, 2014
Last spring, my wife and I bought an older home that was in need of some upgrading. One of the things that makes it clearly older is that is has a split HVAC system – hot water radiators for heat, and overhead vents for fan and AC. Systems like these can be very complicated to maintain, because they use different thermostats in different parts of the house.
In our case, we have three-zone heating and single-zone AC, for a total of four thermostats. In the first few weeks in our house I think I spent close to four hours running around changing the settings on the thermostats, because the heat and AC would end up running at the same time. What a pain.
Being the tech geek that I am, I decided to apply a bit of technology to the problem that owners of this very house had probably been living with since the 60’s. Rather than trying to have the entire system rewired to a single controller, I simply went out and bought four internet-enabled smart thermostats, of which there are now several options.
Once I connected them all up and associated them with the same property, they now know things like not to run the heat and AC at the same time. I also started to get something I wasn’t expecting – a monthly report on my energy usage, and some things I could do to reduce my costs without impacting my comfort. It doesn’t hurt that Platfora works with a company that does that kind energy usage reporting – not just for individuals, but for big power companies as well. They’ve even partnered with a thermostat manufacturer to provide an integrated solution that includes all of their energy analytics!
The funny thing is that since then, I’ve started getting all kinds of reports from my gadgets. I have a wristband that tells me all about how active I’ve been recently, including a weekly recap in my email. I have a little sports sensor that tells me how consistently I’m swinging the golf club, and how my practice stats compare to others at my level of ability. And I’m pretty sure if I wanted to, I could get my phone to track all kinds of other stuff too, and probably find some Android app to send me emails about it. The only problem, maybe other than some big brother concerns, is that all of these reports and sensors aren’t cross correlating their data collection efforts to increase their value even further.
When corporations collect multiple streams of data and analyze them together to draw conclusions that weren’t possible from a single data source, you’re talking about a Big Data problem. For example, you could take the data from my golf sensor and my activity band together to know how active I am when I’m playing golf, and to adjust out any odd readings that might occur since a golf swing isn’t exactly a normal body movement. Or, you could go a step further and take location data from my cell phone to figure out that I’m at the driving range, working hopelessly on being a better golfer, and use that info to turn down the thermostat in my house until I wrap things up to save me a few bucks. You could even use that to tell the water heater to kick into overdrive when I’m on my way home, since my wife won’t let me in the house afterwards unless I’m headed directly for the shower.
Correlating those disparate data-sources, and then taking action on the insights you might find requires this whole new category of Big Data tools that I talk and write about. Some of them are focused more on discovering patterns (Platfora falls into this group), and others are focused on taking near-term action when seeing those patterns occur in streaming data sources. Now, by taking my website logs and cross correlating them with my call center system, I can determine micro-groups that will respond well to targeted messaging. Add in some social media data, and I can determine what impact a marketing campaign has not only on media buzz, but also how much traffic it drives to my website and my call center.
I can even take the data coming off of my network firewall and use it to determine what other folks have figured out about my security infrastructure to avoid a possible breach. Both types of tools are enormously important for getting to a place where the environment around you adjusts itself based on the data you’re generating every day, just by living in the 21st century and owning these gadgets. Once we’re there, I doubt we’d ever be able to imagine living without it though.
Keith McClellan leads up Federal Engineering at Platfora, and has been focused on Big Data and related technologies for most of his career. If you’re interested in his random musings, he tweets @keithmcc and occasionally writes for the Platfora blog.