Smart Systems and Little Data

December 28, 2010 at 11:42 am Leave a comment

Last month, The Economist issued a special report on smart systems. The report is an excellent exploration of the second world that is emerging beside the real world we know: the digital reflection of the world. The real world is strewn with sensors, which constantly transfer masses of output data that is then reflected in a mirror digital world. The mirror digital world doesn’t exist for the sake of knowledge alone. It hopefully makes the task of managing the real world easier and better.
“Whether in water, power, transport or buildings, all are trying to turn their dumb infrastructures into something more like a central nervous system. That makes them pioneers of the convergence of the physical and the digital world.”
The report gives a picture of all things sensory and digital today:
– smartphones which contain a host of sensors and which transmit some of that information back into the network
– the issues that arose in Bakersfield, CA, when the local utility installed smart sensors and the bills consumers were paying trebled in some cases
– electrical smart grids that are designed to reduce peak power load by allowing dynamic pricing and prompting consumers to delay use to less loaded hours
– and, of course, smart water networks.
In light of the report, it is interesting to note how some systems face a plethora of sensors and data — smartphone data for instance, transportation data and all the classic examples of a world with RFIDs.
Other systems, on the other hand, the “dumb infrastructure” ones, have few points of data and that data is not neccesarily given in real time, nor is it (in the case of water networks) easy to make sense of that data, which is both sparse and noisy.
“Putting sensors and actuators (devices to control a mechanism) into physical infrastructures is not exactly new. Known as “supervisory control and data acquisition”, such systems have been around for decades. But many still require human intervention: workers have to be sent out to download sensor readings or to fix problems…The operations centre of Thames Water in Reading, to the west of London, is a good place to see both the old and the new—and soon the future. A big video screen shows expected precipitation over the next few hours, and workers monitor the water level of reservoirs on their own screens. But if one of the pumps fails, they may still have to make a call: not all the valves can be remotely controlled.”
In the article, it is mentioned that a leap in water flow can indicate a leak, but also a real world event that is not necessarily a problem. And since holidays and warm weather and irrigation are not wired with sensors into the network today nor are they correlated directly with real time water use, data still requires analysis.
In a sense, water networks are a special case of smart systems; they are systems that on the one hand have enormous importance since smart water systems can save scarce water and let utilities deal with aging pipes. On the other hand, smart water networks don’t  require tens of thousands of smart consumer meters to work; in fact, they can work with whatever sensors the utility has — and here lies their enormous potential to change water networks and to do so faster and more effectively than larger, more data rich smart systems.

Entry filed under: Smart Water Grid, The Economist, Uncategorized, Water Scarcity. Tags: , , , , , .

On Analytics and Operational Excellence Five Things to Know About the Intersection of Water Networks and Smart Systems

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