Insights derived from “big data” are creating tangible benefits for governments, businesses and citizens, but what can we do to make big data even better? Part of the answer lies in the way the networks which underpin big data are evolving, as well as in addressing critical technology and policy challenges.

Big data is being put to use all around us, improving the way we work, live, learn and play. In Spain, for example, the municipal government of Barcelona is using data from connected devices and sensors to increase productivity and create jobs. Devices that remotely monitor water pressure and pipe leakage is saving $58 million a year; Internet Protocol (IP) controlled street lights are reducing annual maintenance costs by one-third; revenue from remotely monitored parking is increasing revenue by $50 million; and the data-driven economy has created 47,000 jobs over the past seven years, notwithstanding the economic crisis.

In the private sector, businesses that apply big data analytics have experienced a 26% improvement in performance, and harvesting big data for decision-making can increase global corporate profits by 21%.

The increasing use of big data is fuelled by IP networks that are connecting billions of physical devices in what we call the Internet of Everything, which describes the value from connecting devices, data, processes and people. And this volume of data is accelerating, driven by four major trends:

  1. IP is fast becoming the common language for most data communication, particularly for proprietary industrial networks such as electricity grids, building systems, industrial manufacturing, oil systems and a multitude of other sectors.
  2. Previously unconnected places, people, things and processes are connecting to networks bringing billions of people and devices online over the next five years.
  3. Existing physically stored information is being digitized to record and share previously analogue material, and the digital share of the world’s stored information has increased from 25% to over 98% in the past decade.
  4. The introduction of IP version 6 (IPv6) now removes the technical limit on the number of devices that can connect to the internet, theoretically allowing for trillions of trillions.

Improving the ability of IP networks to transmit data for processing, as well as enabling networks to create, analyse and act on data insights can speed up the way big data can make a positive impact. Building this capability will require improving network infrastructure, enhancing analytical capabilities and “intelligence” in the network with distributed computing.

There are, however, several critical challenges that need to be addressed because these technical and policy issues can either accelerate, or impede, the positive impact of big data analysis as part of the Internet of Everything.

For example, robust industry standards are needed for interoperability between systems and for economies of scale. While there are different requirements for critical networks, such as utilities that are closed, and networks connected to the open internet (for example, those that monitor parking space availability), common standards will allow information to be exchanged within, and among, these networks as necessary and appropriate.

Similarly, policy-makers must also identify the appropriate balance between protecting the privacy of individuals’ data and allowing for innovation in service delivery and product development. And robust security is needed to reliably prevent hacking and access by unauthorized and unwanted users. Network security is essential to ensure a healthy ecosystem in which users, consumers and businesses feel safe in engaging in big data activities.

Careful radio-spectrum planning is needed to enable wireless machine-to-machine (M2M), as well as people-to-people (P2P) and people-to-machine (P2M), connectivity. Spectrum requirements are going to be heterogeneous and will include narrowband and broadband; short haul and long haul; continuous data transmission and short bursts of data; and licensed spectrum as well as licence-exempt spectrum.

These and other technical and policy issues require careful consideration and are discussed further in chapter 1.2 of the 2014 Global Information Technology Report: The Risks and Rewards of Big Data. How the global community tackles these challenges will go far in determining big data’s impact on countries, businesses and individuals.

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Author: Dr Robert Pepper, Vice-President, Global Technology Policy, Cisco

Image: Memory chips, collected from discarded electronic items, are pictured at Dowa Holdings Co’s Eco-System Recycling Co, a recycling plant, in Honjo, north of Tokyo March 28, 2008.