Last reviewed 25 April 2016

Data gathering and analysis are at the heart of Big Data, but what is their practical application to environmental management? Dave Howell reports.

Information is one of the most useful tools any environmental manager can have. Obtaining detailed information that can be leveraged to deliver real-world advantages has been a core driver in the environmental management sector for decades.

Today, there has been an explosion in how the quantity and quality of the data that can be collected, but more importantly, how this information can be analysed and acted upon. We are now in an age of big data and with the Internet of Things on the cusp of becoming an even greater data gatherer, what does this mean for the future of environmental management?

IBM, in its report on how to harness data for better infrastructure management, stated: “Big Data is a combination characteristics and one that creates an opportunity for organisations to gain competitive advantage in today’s digitised marketplace. The challenge lies in an organisation’s ability to capture the big data that is applicable to its needs, effectively manage it and extract new and relevant insights in order to achieve breakthrough business outcomes.”

Indeed, Frost & Sullivan also commented: “Big data can generate numerous opportunities in terms of complete energy solutions, business value, and optimum customer service satisfaction in any facility. Facility managers must leverage the entire plethora of collected data to make this possible. Hence, the idea is to create a structured way to collect, process and analyse a set of data to better performance and increase functional capabilities of the facility.”

Narrow systems

Until now, data collection and analysis had been focused on narrow systems. Environment managers had looked closely at their installed heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) solutions and utilities to gain the insight they needed to optimise their costs. Big data massively expands this sphere of influence with data gathering from every aspect of an environment manager’s estate.

What is more, this data will become increasingly granular, offering opportunities to drill down into the information to find patterns and practical applications of cost saving and environmental enhancements for staff and other users of the premises.

Olaf Heil, CEO EMEA-CIS Social Innovation Business Platform at Hitachi Ltd commented: “We are entering an era where green products and services are increasingly being enhanced or even replaced by ‘smart’ products and services, which make the generation, distribution and consumption of energy more efficient. Smart grids are introducing digital technology to the electricity network, so they can intelligently monitor and control the distribution of energy.

“They are interactive and can provide real-time feedback, which can reduce losses within the grid and make our energy consumption more efficient. Smart grids can also manage energy demand more efficiently than traditional electric grids, as they have the power to distribute energy to where it is needed most.”

Environmental data

Jeremy Copp, Chief Commercial Officer, eeGeo, a mapping and analytics company, was asked how environment managers can leverage Big Data across their premises to reduce cost and improve efficiency.

“Providing environment managers with effective means to both visualise datasets relating to asset and resource usage, as well as collect live information on building use enables them to quickly and easily derive actionable insights that can optimise efficiency and reduce costs,” said Jeremy.

“By monitoring assets within the premises, usage patterns can be correlated to gain insight into staff behaviour, informing decision-making to help reduce costs and minimise resource wastage. For example, if a particular meeting room is consistently never used in the afternoon, the lighting could be automatically switched off or the room rented to external businesses during less busy periods. Similarly, unused hot desking can be reassigned to other uses or the floor space vacated altogether.”

What tools should environment managers use to allow them to analyse the big datasets they have? Are computer-aided facility management (CAFM) systems good enough?

“A dynamic 3D map of both the exterior and interior of buildings delivered through a mobile application can not only help environment managers to manage assets and monitor resource usage through enhanced visualisation, but also in the hands of the building users encourage compliance and greater efficiency. As well as offering an intuitive presentation of complex data, the provision of an engaging orientation utility for users can encourage better use of resource booking, check-in and check-out actions in hoteling systems.

“Optimising the use of resources can deliver direct cost savings as well as improving business efficiency. Presenting complex data sets graphically with geographic context enables facilities managers to intuitively extract meaningful understanding and insight from Big Data.”

How do you think the Internet of Things will impact on the collection of data and, therefore, how this can be analysed by environment managers?

“The Internet of Things will massively increase the volume and breadth of data available to environment managers, with all kinds of devices and building components able to report on their own status and that of the surroundings. This additional information has the potential to help in the effective management of facilities, though the collection of data itself is valueless without deriving the insight from it that delivers business benefits.”

What are the pitfalls to watch out for when analysing big datasets?

“Key in analysing big datasets is to always remember the business outcomes that you are aiming to deliver. Analysis for the sake of it generally achieves little; ensuring the work provides insights that can be actioned to effect positive change in the chosen areas of the business is vital to deliver a return from the technology investments.”

What does the future of big data analysis look like in the context of environmental management?

“With an increasingly ‘mobile-first’ workforce, environment managers have the opportunity to utilise mobile applications to not only visualise the complex data they have available, but also to use the mobile devices as additional means of data collection.

“Engaging with building users and employees through an intuitive guide and utility application can further improve resource utilisation and business efficiency: it encourages compliance with resource booking and usage, reduces time spent finding resources and also empowers users to quickly and directly report any facilities issues they might encounter.”

Conclusion

There is little doubt that environment managers are moving into an era of unprecedented data collection and analysis. The Internet of Things is clearly a burgeoning sector, and with increasingly sophisticated data analysis tools becoming available, environment managers will be able to take the detailed control of their facilities that only deep data insights can deliver.