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Exploit the power of big data

07 January 2016

The UK has an enormous opportunity to reap major benefit as it evolves into a data-enabled economy, but must implement best practice now, especially in systems engineering, to maximise productivity and minimise security risks, according to a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Engineering and Technology

Connecting data: driving productivity and innovation, says that harnessing the power of data analytics – big data – and linking key datasets reliably in real time has immense potential to drive innovation and enhance UK productivity, which is currently lagging 17% behind the average across the G7 economies. However, good practice is currently not widespread or consistent enough across and between each sector of the economy, and faster progress needs to be made to ensure rigorous performance and resilience.

“We have access to lots of data but we need to structure it and curate it better,” says Professor Jim Norton FREng, Chair of the RAEng/IET Connecting Data Working Group. “Big data is a bit like an iceberg – most of the value we want to unlock is still lurking under the surface. For example, sensors are already being included in new buildings to control things like ventilation and lighting, but the data they collect can also be used to show where heating could be turned off to save energy. Our report will help to develop a route map to harness all that capability securely and effectively.”

Recommendations made in the report include:

  • Develop a suite of technology-independent resilience frameworks for both new and old infrastructure in order to overcome the fragility of increasingly interdependent systems and the risks this creates to critical infrastructure and the Internet of Things;
  • Extend the Universal Service Obligation (USO) to broadband access and aim for the EU target of 30 Mbits/sec download speeds rather than the 5 Mbits/sec initially suggested by government and the welcome 10 Mbits/sec now being mooted by the Prime Minister;
  • Develop data trading platforms governed by mutually agreed standards that create trust in data capture, trading and re-use, particularly up and down supply chains;
  • Adapt undergraduate and postgraduate courses to reflect new and unmet demands for a multi-skilled workforce with data science skills;
  • Encourage regulators, professional institutions and standards bodies to work together to make performance and resilience a shared priority.

Moving to a data-enabled economy is essential in terms of the UK’s international competitiveness, says the report, but it cautions that rapidly developing new technology will place further strain on already fragile systems that are also potentially under threat from cybersecurity breaches. Relatively simple embedded systems have proliferated throughout the UK’s infrastructure and have been progressively linked to the Internet, often without thought to the security implications. The requirement for best practice in systems engineering is particularly important for critical infrastructure and the ‘Internet of Things’ because of the risk of creating vulnerable systems of systems.

Innovative monitoring

A good example of the kind of transformation the working group want to see in the use of data is Caterpillar’s innovative monitoring of construction equipment, which includes GPS location, engine temperature and loading weight –and means that spare parts can be ordered to anticipate demand. As Caterpillar has developed a business model around a whole system, rather than an individual asset, gaps in the production process can be closed, and loss of production time can be minimised.

Valuing data is another key area covered in the report: by failing to measure this key and growing element of national value creation, UK assets could be underestimated and a large element of wealth creation omitted from the tax base. “Our company reporting and accounting is very preoccupied with physical assets,” says Professor Norton. “Data is not really covered and more research is needed to understand how best to value it.”

Summarising the aims of the working group, Professor Norton says: “The UK is at the start of a dramatic transformation that will impact on the working and private lives of all our citizens. We are determined that the way ahead should draw on the key principles of best engineering practice and look forward to continuing to facilitate these vital developments.”

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