Future Big Data: And a Sustainable One At That


As the world becomes more polluted, populated and congested, and as our resources become ever more depleted, humanity is fast reaching the point where sustainable living will become essential to its very survival.

Sustainability – the practice of ensuring that we have, and will continue to have, the resources, materials and water we need to protect our health and the environment – is already a big concern for many governments and industries. But in order for sustainability to succeed, governments businesses need to develop initiatives that are not just environmentally and socially feasible, but also economically viable.

As you’ll learn in today’s series, big data is helping them to do just that, in the key areas of energy efficiency, environmental impact, and resource management.

Clean Energy

There are plenty of ways in which businesses can go about saving energy, but in many cases it’s not always feasible to implement these ideas all at once. So one of the biggest quandaries for businesses has always been – which environmental sustainability project will give them the quickest payback? For example, is an initiative that reduces energy consumption more or less beneficial than one which saves on water use?

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Using the EnergyPoints Analytics application, companies can now make comparisons of different projects to answer this question more easily.

The application works by crunching the data for various factors associated with each project, such as resource location, life cycle considerations, scarcity and regional energy mix, before converting them into a unit that’s universally recognized and understood – a gallon of gasoline. Companies can then use this data to plan for different scenarios.

Ory Zik, CEO of EnergyPoints, explains how the app works:

“Cost is not a sufficient indicator and existing resource metrics fail to factor in critical elements like location or resource scarcity. The application provides businesses with comparative analysis for more effective project decisions.”

“By measuring all resources using one universal metric, executives can clearly communicate the true impact of their projects on the business and the environment.”

The beta version of EnergyPoints Analytics is presently being used a number of corporate customers, among them Harvard University.

Carbon Footprints

One of the biggest sustainability goals of environmentally-friendly companies is to reduce their carbon footprint, but tracking this has always been time-consuming and expensive. Not anymore.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Earth Institute‘s, the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy and PepsiCo, Inc., recently put their heads together and came up with a new software program that can simultaneously calculate the carbon footprint of thousands of individual products at the click of a button. Using the software, it’s hoped that companies will be able to design new ways of reducing their environmental impact.

The project, outlined in this report, began in 2007 and was originally intended to help standardize PepsiCo’s calculations of the carbon emissions for each of their products as they are made, packaged, distributed and finally, disposed of.

Led by Christopher Meinrenken, the team created a life-cycle analysis database on 1,137 different PepsiCo products, before developing an algorithm that calculates various estimated emissions factors for the materials that go into making each product, doing away with the need to manually map each product’s ingredients and packaging materials.

According to Meinrenken:

“The automatically generated factors enable even non-experts to calculate approximate carbon footprints and alleviate resource constraints for companies embarking on large-scale product carbon footprinting.”

Al Halvorsen, senior director of sustainability at PepsiCo, added:

“The newly developed software promises to not only save time and money for companies like PepsiCo, but also to provide fresh insights into how companies measure, manage, and reduce their carbon footprint in the future.”

Resource management

Energy efficiency and carbon emissions aren’t the only aspects of sustainability to be considered – managing available resources is an equally vital factor, and once again, big data can help us to do so.

Japanese fishing industry experts are leading by example, using big data to prevent the over-fishing of bluefin tuna, an extremely popular sushi ingredient that is listed as a “species of concern” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

With imports of the bluefin tuna rising from just 350 tons a year in 1970 to more than 36,000 tons by 2005, marine experts are rightly worried about the sustainability of its population. To prevent the fish becoming an “endangered” species, scientists are drawing on NOAA’s Comprehensive Large Array-data Stewardship System (CLASS), which stores more than 20 petabytes of environmental data regarding marine life.

Using the data, scientists are able to apply scientific studies and historical catch data to mathematical models that can simulate and track the bluefin tuna’s population, allowing them to calculate optimal fishing limits and ensure the species’ survival, without ever having to take it off the menu.