Intelligent use of big data

Extracting value

More than a decade ago, UK mathematician Clive Humby coined the phrase, “Data is the new oil,” adding that, “It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc, to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

Businesses are becoming increasingly aware that they have a powerful new raw material at their fingertips, but they remain unsure exactly how to extract the value from it. “The age of big data is upon us, and it is upon our clients,” says Dr Navil Shetty, an Atkins Fellow and a Leader in Digital Asset Management in Atkins’ Aerospace, Defence, Security & Technology division. “It is something that has only really developed in the last few years. Our clients are aware that they have this data, and some are on a journey to understanding how they can use it. However, only a few have put in place systems to capture and analyse that data systematically and derive actionable insights.”

More than 20 billion devices are set to be connected to the internet by 2020, not just computers and phones, but everything from household appliances and heating systems to shipping containers and railway signals. They are creating exobytes – millions of terabytes – of new data every year. This data ranges from information on how assets are performing to environmental data such as temperature and air quality, along with mobile data that can tell you how customers are using an asset, and social media data that can provide a valuable insight into customer sentiment. New sources of data, such as drones, autonomous vehicles and augmented or virtual reality devices, are appearing all the time.

It is not just the amount of data that is an issue, but its complexity. “Big data can be defined as exceptionally large amounts of data that cannot be analysed by traditional data management systems,” says Shetty.

As a result of the development of the Internet of Things, virtually everything that is now made – from bridges to Fitbits – has sensors in it, that can capture data. In addition, the cost of storing data has fallen significantly.

While companies are increasingly aware that they have data available, and that it can help inform decisions, many are struggling to know how to use it, says Atkins Senior Project Manager Dave Kelly.

When working with clients that are generating large amounts of often complex data, “you need people with specialised skillsets to help them make good business decisions,” he adds.

With the right help, the accumulation of all this information means that organisations not only have greater visibility on how their assets are performing, they also have an ongoing record of performance. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms can then predict how they will behave in future and when certain components will need replacing.

This predictive maintenance translates into tangible benefits for customers – on the railways, for example, signal failures cause huge delays, infuriate passengers and cost rail companies millions of pounds. Being able to maintain and repair signals before they fail improves the passenger experience while enabling organisations to concentrate their resources to be more efficient. There are similar benefits for all sorts of major infrastructure assets, from baggage handling at airports to traffic management on motorways and offshore wind farms.

  • The IT and digitalisation isn’t the point of managing the transition between old and new technology, the point is to make things more efficient, easier and to allow customers and people to focus on the real issues rather than focusing on processes and systems.

  • The amount of data that we can derive, create and use about our customer or constituent is way beyond what we used to have – and growing. Effectively, we know where our customers are, we know their sentiment, we know their habits, and we often have great insight about their requirements. So, we can push out personalised service capabilities and offers in quite a proactive way before the customer has made a decision, thus influence the outcomes.

    Jim White

Using big data intelligently allows firms to interpret, analyse and learn from the prior performance of their assets in a way that enables them to improve their decision-making and plan better management of assets and systems in future through Digital Asset Management systems. However, data management skills are not enough. To get the most out of the data companies are generating, they need to marry this with deep industry knowledge as well.

“Ultimately,” says Shetty, “it will allow us to design better products and infrastructure projects. That’s the real prize we’re looking for. It’s very, very powerful.”

Digital Asset Management of any critical infrastructure can lead to savings of up to 30% in maintenance and operation costs, Shetty says.

Yet not all assets are currently monitored, and where they are, it is not always the right data that is being monitored. To get the most out of your assets, you need to understand both what data you are currently collecting and what data you need in order to improve your ability to make decisions.

Initiatives such as Digital Railway, Digital Built Britain and Smart Cities UK show that the concept of Digital Asset Management is starting to gain traction. And as sector-wide schemes, they illustrate the benefits that can come from widening out the scope of analysis from individual assets to entire industries or cities.

As Kelly says: “The whole purpose of gathering data is to turn it into something useful – to transform it from data into information that can be acted upon to make strategic decisions.”

Dr Anne Kemp
Technical Director, Infrastructure