Who Knew? Analytics Will Save The World…

Analytics used to be the subject too boring to contemplate, says Peter Judge. Now it’s the star of the environmental tech show

Analytics is a switch-off subject for most of us.

It’s the field where companies promise “solutions” that will extract hitherto unknown – and supposedly lucrative – trends from vast mountains of data. Things like data warehouses spot unexpected trends and allow companies to sell more stuff, catch more fraudsters and all that kind of thing.

It’s boring as hell, in other words.

But analytics has turned out to be the star of IBM’s Start summit on sustainability. The IT giant has run eight days of fairly open (and sometimes off-the-wall) discussion at Lancaster House in London, for those with a strong enough constitution, and an empty enough diary, on how to make business sustainable.

And yesterday, the conference was heading up the final straight. We’ve had days on sustainable cities, sustainable energy and transport, and supply chains, and the concluding full day, before the final wrap up, was all about … yes, analytics.

Get enough data and we can save the world

For an analytics expert, there is no such thing as too much information. Instrument enough things, analyse the resulting flood of data hard enough, and we can draw conclusions that will help us run the world more efficiently, is the subtext of IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign, and it turns out to be the major thing that IBM is bringing to the Start Summit.

There’s IBM predictive analytics software involved in a bid to save the endangered Grevy’s zebra, and IBM also provided the analytics for a “Minority Report” style bid to predict crimes in Britain.

Throughout the week, IBM people have continually popped up in amongst the other experts, saying how many billions of “intelligent, interconnected and instrumented” devices there are in the world (billions) and how powerful the information is which they provide.

Instrumented cars and roads could adjust transport to avoid congestion. Instrumented domestic appliances can adjust the load on the grid, so there is no need to build new generating plant.

The pitch is strikingly similar to HP’s ideas that networked sensors can protect the environment, which it sums up as a Central Nervous System for the Earth or CeNSE. It’s not as succinct as “Smarter Planet” but pretty much means the same thing. We can only hope that the two companies are working on approaches that will prove compatible in the field, and the earth’s nervous system isn’t carved up between incompatible kinds of neuron.

Analytics the key?

However that plays out, It does seem clear that sensors and the analytics behind them will be crucial to the goal of slicing large parts of the energy costs out of our collective life. And one could wish that the current UK government had access to some kind of similar power when arguing over where to cut in the “strategic reviews” currently going on.

And it doesn’t take much mental processing to work out that analytics might just turn out to be not quite so deadly dull as it first looked.

If it saves the world, the least we could do is take an interest.