Untangling the Networks: Using Big Data for Good

September 30, 2013

Ros Harvey, Founding Director, SenseT

Big Data is unsettling to many people. For some, it heralds the Orwellian prophecy of the Big Brother society. Others just wish they’d stop getting so many ads in their social media feeds.

Recent revelations about the United States’ data-mining surveillance program have fueled concerns about how our data is being used. Yet Big Data, when used correctly—in other words, when we protect privacy and are transparent about how data is being used—could be one of the greatest tools to address global sustainability challenges. It offers the opportunity to study the complex networks between people and the environment, allowing us to identify previously unknown patterns and relationships and develop more efficient, sustainable approaches. Big Data can help us do more with less, untangling vast networks into usable information.

Two problems with using Big Data for sustainability solutions are that it is not accessible to most of us, and there is often little transparency in how data is used.

Our mission at Sense-T is to democratize data, bringing the power of Big Data—in particular, real-time sensor data—to communities, business, and government so that we can run industries better, plan infrastructure, protect our environment, and drive efficient services.

Based in Tasmania, Sense-T is working across the public and private sectors to create an economy-wide sensor network by linking existing environmental sensors and encouraging investment in new ones. The real-time information is drawn into a cloud where it can be combined with other data sets.

We can reuse and repurpose data, creating value on many different levels. For example, a dairy farmer can use data from soil sensors to help minimize fertilizer use. The same sensor data can be accessed by an oyster farmer to manage water quality, by science students to study the environment, or by government to help cut red tape.

Company-level data used to increase efficiency and productivity can be aggregated up to regional- and even national-level environmental monitoring. This helps solve a key barrier to environmental reporting—getting the data.

Sense-T creates value through sharing data. In return, we will be clear about how data is used, and we will protect privacy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has helped develop a combination of statistical techniques along with robust policies and procedures to safeguard data.

In using Big Data for sustainability, there remain challenges both in the business model and the technical development. While Sense-T doesn’t have all the answers to these challenges, we have come a long way in developing Big Data that supports open innovation, protects privacy, is transparent about data use, and creates value for entire communities.


Ros Harvey will speak on the panel “The Industrial Internet” at the BSR Conference 2013, where she, Michael Finegan of Sprint Nextel, and BSR Associate Director Marshall Chase will explore the significant opportunities—and challenges—of using networking, sensor technology, and analytics to monitor and manage the world’s infrastructure.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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