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Visual Control of Big Data

Data-visualization tool identifies sources of aberrant results and recomputes visualizations without them.

In the age of Big Data, visualization tools are vital. With a single glance at a graphic display, a human being can recognize patterns that a computer might fail to find even after hours of analysis.


But what if there are aberrations in the patterns? Or what if there’s just a suggestion of a visual pattern that’s not distinct enough to justify any strong inferences? Or what if the pattern is clear, but not what was to be expected?

The Database Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has released a data-visualization tool that lets users highlight aberrations and possible patterns in the graphical display; the tool then automatically determines which data sources are responsible for which.

It could be, for instance, that just a couple of faulty sensors among dozens are corrupting a very regular pattern of readings, or that a few underperforming agents are dragging down a company’s sales figures, or that a clogged vent in a hospital is dramatically increasing a few patients’ risk of infection.

Big Data is Big Business

Visualizing big data is big business: Tableau Software, which sells a suite of visualization tools, is a $4 billion company. But in creating attractive, informative graphics, most visualization software discards a good deal of useful data.

“If you look at the way people traditionally produce visualizations of any sort, they would have some big, rich data set — that has maybe hundreds of millions of data points, or records — and they would do some reduction of the set to a few hundred or thousands of records at most,” says Samuel Madden, a professor of computer science and engineering and one of the Database Group’s leaders. “The problem with doing that sort of reduction is that you lose information about where those output data points came from relative to the input data set. If one of these data points is crazy — is an outlier, for example — you don’t have any real ability to go back to the data set and ask, ‘Where did this come from and what were its properties?’”

That’s one of the problems solved by the new visualization tool, dubbed DBWipes. For his thesis work, Eugene Wu, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science who developed DBWipes with Madden and adjunct professor Michael Stonebraker, designed a novel “provenance tracking” system for large data sets.

If a visualization system summarizes 100 million data entries into 100 points to render on the screen, then each of the 100 points will in some way summarize — perhaps by averaging — 1 million data points. Wu’s provenance-tracking system provides a compact representation of the source of the summarized data so that users can easily trace visualized data back to the source — and conversely, track source data to the pixels that are rendered by it.

The idea of provenance tracking is not new, but Wu’s system is particularly well suited to the task of tracking down outliers in data visualizations. Rather than simply telling the user the million data entries that were used to compute the outliers, it first identifies those that most influenced the outlier values, and summarizes those data entries in human readable terms.

Best Paper

Wu and Madden’s work on their “Scorpion” algorithm was selected as one of the best papers of the Very Large Database conference last year. The algorithm tracks down the records responsible for particular aspects of a DBWipes visualization and then efficiently recalculates the visualization to either exclude or emphasize the data they contain.

If some of the points in the visualization suggest a regular pattern, the user can highlight them and mark them as “normal data”; if some of the points disrupt that pattern, the user can highlight them and mark them as “outlier data”; and if the pattern is surprising, the user can draw the anticipated pattern on-screen.

Scorpion then tracks down the provenance of the highlighted points, and filters the provenance down to the subset that most influenced the outliers. Their paper introduces several properties about the specific computation that can be used to develop more efficient algorithms for finding these subsets.

Scorpion, Madden says, was partly motivated by a study conducted by a researcher at a Boston hospital, who noticed that a subset of patients in one of the hospital’s wards was incurring much higher treatment costs than the rest. Any number of factors could have been responsible: the patients’ age and fitness, the severity of their conditions, their particular constellations of symptoms, their health plans, or perhaps something as banal as their proximity to the hospital — nothing could be ruled out.

After six months of work, the researcher concluded that most of the variance in patients’ treatment costs could be explained by a single variable: their doctors. It turned out that three doctors on the hospital staff, in an effort to leave no stone unturned, simply prescribed more interventions than their peers.

As an experiment, Wu and Madden turned Scorpion loose on the researcher’s data. Within five minutes, it had concluded that the data point most strongly correlated with the increase in patients’ treatment costs was the names of their doctors. Because it was combing through a massive data set and, like all big-data search algorithms, had to sacrifice some precision for efficiency, it couldn’t pinpoint just the three doctors identified by the six-month study. But it did produce a list of 10 doctors most likely to be responsible for cost variance, and those three were among them. “You would at least know where to begin looking,” Madden says.

“DBWipes and Scorpion are a great example for a new breed of analytics tools that successfully combine machine learning with interactive visualization for exploratory data analysis,” says Martin Spott, chief analytics researcher at British Telecom. “Explaining outliers in data is highly relevant for many businesses, and Scorpion promises to solve the problem much quicker and more elegantly than existing approaches.”

Top image: Courtesy of Christine Daniloff/MIT

Reprinted with permission of MIT News.


Environmental Innovation in Canada’s Oil Sands

Science and innovation have played a key role in the development of Canada’s oil sands resources from the very beginning. The first scientific assessment of the oil sands was conducted in 1848, more than 150 years ago. Since then, the spirit of innovation and the application of science and technology have allowed Canada to become a world leader in the responsible production of unconventional resources like the oil sands.


We as Canadians value the benefits we see from oil sands, but we also place great importance on the environment. Producers accept that operating in Canada requires high standards of environmental care and responsibility. They are committed to meeting those standards and continuously improving environmental performance through the development of innovative technologies.

Canada’s oil sands producers have always been leaders in innovation. Their success in developing the technologies necessary to extract bitumen from oil sands in ways that are economically viable is testament to that. With every new project, producers have individually found ways to increase the economy and environmental sustainability of their operations. Now, through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), they are working together.

COSIA was formed by 13 of Canada’s oil sands producers, representing about 90 percent of Canada’s oil sands production. It was formed on the belief in the value of continuous innovation and collaboration to reduce risk and cost, while accelerating the improvement of environmental performance.

Through the development of globally precedent-setting legal agreements, COSIA’s member companies — competitors in every other area — now collaborate at new levels. We can pool our knowledge and expertise to research, develop and implement innovative technologies to improve environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands faster than they could on their own.

We are working to solve some of the greatest environmental challenges facing not only the oil sands industry, but the world. In many cases, the solutions we find for our industry will be transferable to other sectors. For example, as populations continue to grow, so too will the need for fresh sources of water. We will need to find low carbon-intensive methods of desalinating brackish and seawater. COSIA companies are currently looking to reduce greenhouse gas intensity by increasing the energy efficiency of treating water for use in the bitumen extraction process. It is our hope that the solutions we find will improve water treatment technologies worldwide.

For that reason, COSIA has sought out innovative organizations from other sectors to collaborate with on solving these challenges. Through COSIA’s Associate Membership (AM), we can utilize the brightest minds around the world to help find solutions to the environmental issues facing the oil sands industry.

Through COSIA’s AM program, GE has contributed about $18 million for projects that will enable the development of new technologies to reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions in Canada’s oil sands. Associate members are able to collaborate directly with COSIA’s member companies, allowing the best and brightest minds from GE, Suncor Energy, Devon Canada, ConocoPhillips and several other member companies to share ideas and develop a new generation of environmental technologies.

To date, COSIA’s members have shared more than 560 existing technologies that cost more than $900 million to develop. In addition to those contributed technologies, COSIA has about 190 active projects that cost more than $500 million dollars.

COSIA is new — as both an organization and a concept. Yet while we’re just two years old, our members are beginning to see results. We will continue to work together to develop new, innovative ways of improving the environmental performance of our industry and finding solutions to the complex environmental issues that face this planet.

Dr. Dan Wicklum has been the Chief Executive of COSIA since March 2012. Prior to joining COSIA, Dan held various senior positions for Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada. He is a board member of the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporations. Dan’s first career was as a linebacker in the CFL.


Would You Like A Coffee With That College Education?

As families’ education costs skyrocket and the need for skilled workers keeps business owners up at night, a new model for workforce training has just hit the streets. Starbucks is providing a free college education to thousands of its employees through an online partnership with Arizona State University. Open to all of Starbuck’s U.S. employees who work 20 hours a week or more, Starbucks will pay full tuition for those employees who have the grades and test scores to gain admission to Arizona State.


For a fast-food company, Starbucks’ has really broken the mold in terms of employee attraction and retention: they offer health insurance even for part-time employees as well as employee stock options. Yet, with all these benefit costs, Starbucks’ stock has grown more than one hundred fold since 1992 when it went public. And according to the book, “The Starbucks Experience,” Starbucks’ employee turnover is 120 percent less than the industry average.

For many small business owners, including small manufacturers, additional spending on employees’ wages and benefits seems counter-intuitive to financial growth. But in an era where the competition for a skilled workforce accelerates every day, a little more spending could, instead, reap a lot more in profitability.

Bassi Investments Inc, a money management firm headed by economist Dr. Laurie Bassi, invests in companies that invest in their people. Bassi Investments develop portfolios of firms that make significant investments in human capital management, and the investments’ above average market returns demonstrate that in order to make money, businesses must now acknowledge the importance of their workforce to the success of that business.

Among the MEP network of centers, Pennsylvania-based MANTEC has provided dedicated human resources services since 2000. Their workforce service offerings are market-driven because their small manufacturers (less than 100 employees) generally have no human resource staff. Yet, HR services are the second most frequent request among their clients.

So, if you are not a Starbucks, what can you do to keep your good workers on board? In many cases, opportunities for greater participation in business decisions, employee stock ownership plans (ESOP) and internal career mobility are a good start. Pay-for-performance and wage increases attached to skill increases can also be effective in reducing turnover.

The old saw of, “Why train, when they’ll just leave?” no longer cuts. Once you’ve spent good money on recruiting why wouldn’t you want to support that investment and make sure you get the continued benefit of an ever-smarter workforce?

When you learn how much a small investment in people can pay off for your business, the only thing that will keep you awake at night will be that afternoon cup of coffee.

Stacey Jarrett Wagner is a principal with The JarrettWagner Group, LLC. JWG specializes in imaginative idea development and implementation for workforce issues such as business/workforce analytics, workforce capacity, alignment of workforce and economic development strategies, post-secondary education transitions and training, research and benchmarking for talent management, non-traditional worker strategies, workforce policy assessment and development, and partnering with philanthropic institutions.

This piece first appeared in Manufacturing Innovation Bloga

Top image: Courtesy of Starbucks.


Moving Towards a Frictionless Payment Experience

As a society, our payment habits are once again changing as individuals become more comfortable with new technologies that no longer require taking their credit card out to buy goods and services.

CaixaBank Visa contactless wristband

We have come a long way since science fiction writer Edward Bellamy first wrote about the credit card concept in his 1887 novel, “Looking Backward.” While Bellamy only wrote about the idea in his forward-thinking novel, Frank McNamara, co-founder of Diners Club, was actually the first to use a “small cardboard card” to pay for dinner in 1950.

That night would turn out to change financial services forever, ushering in the beginning of the modern credit card era. Eight years later, American Express CEO Ralph Reed launched a charge card that the company was able to successfully build and scale, thanks in part to the success of its pre-existing financial services businesses. Around the same time, Joseph Williams was developing the first all-purpose credit card for Bank of America — BankAmericard — which would later evolve into Visa.

Just as forward-looking entrepreneurs and executives such as McNamara, Reed and Williams helped created the modern-day credit card system, we are now going through a new cycle of innovation. While the names of the individuals who are changing the payments industry today are different, what they have in common is a desire to create a better way to pay for goods and services.

Could the next 10 years usher in the next revolution in payments, similar to the way the 50s and 60s gave us American Express and Visa? Yes. The introduction of technologies such as PayPal, Square, Amazon Payments, Google Wallet, Facebook, Apple, Stripe and Alibaba are just the tip of the iceberg.

Square changed the way we pay for goods at small and medium-sized businesses by making it cheaper and easier to accept payments. Square’s ability to design a beautiful product and user experience is helping society move towards a frictionless payment experience.

Google is also trying to move us towards a frictionless experience with Google Wallet’s near-field communication (NFC) payment technology. While paying for goods in a store with a smartphone is innovative, it is not a truly frictionless experience. Consumers still have to reach for the smartphone in their pocket or purse, similarly to the way they would reach for their plastic credit card.

The current CEO of American Express, Ken Chenault, recently summed up his thoughts on digital wallets by saying “I’m going to tap to pay? What’s the friction that it’s really solving? What are the benefits that I’m getting? How is that helping me in my shopping journey? At the end of the day, the failure of wallets was not being focused enough on customer needs.”

Chenault has changed the perception of the brand by partnering with the best young startups to create exceptional value for card members. He predicts there will only be five platforms that matter to the future of payments — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Alibaba — and that American Express will be embedded in all of them.

In Spain, CaixaBank has out-innovated Google for the time being by partnering with Visa to introduce the first Visa contactless wristband. The wristband eliminates the friction of paying for goods while increasing the customer’s experience. Barcelona-based CaixaBank has a long history of innovation, as the first European bank to launch a large-scale contactless card payment system in 2011.

While this move by CaixaBank and Visa was extremely smart, it is only the first step towards a truly frictionless payment experience. As Visa’s contactless wristband technology evolves and matures, I expect to see Visa follow its historic growth path by partnering with existing businesses.

MasterCard isn’t sitting still, as CEO Ajay Banga has transformed the company from a global payments company into a technology company with remarkable track record of growth. While still COO, Banga launched MasterCard Labs in 2010 with the goal of developing innovative new technologies. MasterCard’s PayPass, a contactless technology currently used by more than 2 million merchants in 63 countries.

As Visa and MasterCard move into the contactless payments technology, there is a sleeping giant that will soon be awakened — Apple. While there has been much speculation about the iWatch, there has been little if any talk of the device’s potential to change the payment industry by introducing a frictionless contactless payment system to the masses.

Apple has north of 800 million credit cards on file through iTunes, which could instantly make the iWatch a game changer if Apple offers payment capabilities. An iWatch could very well eliminate the need to carry a plastic credit card by simplifying the process of paying for goods and services.

Tap and go, without having to remove your smartphone from your pocket or purse. This is the future of a frictionless payment experience. A customer-first approach to payments that is simple, secure and easy to use is coming.

While this is the future of paying for goods and services without friction, this major change in consumer habit will not occur overnight. Instead, it will take years to fully mature until society as a whole is comfortable with a contactless payment system that is embedded into existing devices such as a watch or bracelet.

This new payment system will eliminate the friction of having to think twice about paying for goods or services.

Grayson Brulte is the Co-Founder & President of Brulte & Company, an innovation advisory and consulting company that designs innovation and technology strategies for a global marketplace.


Industrial Internet Helps the Trains Run on Time

The morning commute is primed for innovative disruption, whether you’re spending hours sitting in traffic jams to stuck inside a jam-packed subway car. SkyTran, an elevated transit system that’s being developed in partnership with NASA, aims to make commuting hassles a thing of the past by zipping passengers around in futuristic-looking driverless pods suspended high above the ground.

Smart Trains gif

SkyTran is just the latest public transportation initiative to tap into the wide expanse of the Internet and the latest in data-collecting software as the central drivers of its day-to-day operations. Perhaps as much as high-speed rail, the Industrial Internet has the potential to fundamentally alter mass transit and cargo hauling.

In the case of SkyTran, the pods and the tracks transporting riders are under constant monitor by the software that operates it. “There are no conductors,” says Jerry Sanders, CEO of the California-based company.

The pods, which look like something straight out of “The Jetsons,” are connected to an overhead track using magnetic levitation, or maglev, a passive form of levitation that provides enough energy to project the pods at speeds approaching 150 miles an hour. SkyTran boasts it can carry 12,000 people an hour, two people to a pod.

While rail travel of the future won’t always be moving at such high speeds, the use of technology to improve efficiencies and cut costs is a key promise of the Industrial Internet.

Union Pacific, the largest railroad company in America, uses Predix, a software platform developed by GE for the Industrial Internet that gathers crucial information like weather data and track conditions from the sensors placed on the trains and on the tracks themselves. The data is transmitted to servers on the railroad, as well as to nearby technicians for immediate repair. The system can even predict train derailments days before they occur.

London’s famed subway system, the Underground, has is using the Industrial Internet to monitor signal disruptions, track conditions, even the climate inside the cars. The London Underground teamed up with Telent, Microsoft and CGI earlier this year to place sensors at critical locations of the Tube’s entire infrastructure.

With a record 3.5 million people riding London’s subway system over — roughly the population of Lithuania — there are bound to be issues with deteriorating tracks and broken air conditioners. The sensors transmit data, such as temperature and fault warnings, to London’s central control centers, where the decision can be made whether to deploy someone to fix the air conditioner inside a car or a broken escalator at a station. Passengers can also hear about delays via mobile apps or text alerts. If successful, the initiative is projected to reduce the London Underground’s support network costs by 30 percent.

SkyTran, which plans to test out its system on a 1,312-foot loop at the campus of Israel Aerospace Industries in Tel Aviv, is also a study in how smart rail holds the potential to both improve service and reduce costs. Passengers can use an app to reserve their pods, which pick them up at the time and of their choosing. The software won’t send the pod along a predetermined route, but instead help determine the fastest route along its network of tracks.

“This is like Google on steroids,” says Sanders. “As soon as you touch that app, SkyTran will know who you are — it will know your travel habits.”

The system is also designed to keep operating expenses contained. “We virtually have very low maintenance costs because there are no mechanical flying parts, and very low operating costs because we have very few personnel operating the system,” he says. If successful, SkyTran has eyes on developing routes in San Francisco and India.

Cost benefits aside, the Industrial Internet aims to help public transportation innovators achieve their goal — get passengers to their destinations swiftly and soundly.

Top gif: Courtesy of SkyTran.


Energy Efficiency — Malaysia’s Future

“There can be no economy where there is no efficiency.”


The words of Benjamin Disraeli have never been truer than in the modern energy landscape. Efficiency is one of the most important tools we have for controlling the bottom line of our energy production. More than that, it is a vital element of any country’s economic progression and security.

The need for further energy development is clear, with the ASEAN region’s economy projected to grow by $735 billion by 2020, according to Accenture. The population is expected to grow from 633 million to 717 million by 2030.

According to a study from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), ASEAN’s power sector — both in generation, transmission and distribution — will need around $500 billion of investment as regional demand increases from 656 terawatt-hours (TWh)in 2010 to 2,414 TWh by 2030. If this development is to provide positive economic growth and meet the needs of a growing population, it will also require a strong dedication to efficiency. That will be the driving force behind the low energy rates that allow businesses to thrive.

A solution for a fast-growing region?

The region’s growth has naturally resulted in a consequential increase in final energy consumption. With an assumed GDP growth rate of 5.2 percent per year from 2007 to 2030, it is estimated that consumption will increase to 427 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE) in 2010 to 1,018 MTOE in 2030. Yet as of 2011, 160 million people in Southeast Asia were still living without access to electricity. Almost 80 percent of those live in rural and remote areas.

The spread of electrification brings with it, huge potential and great challenges especially to the ASEAN region, constituting as it does 10 countries, most of which are spread over islands. Indonesia alone is made up of 18,000 islands and sits at a 73 percent electrification rate, while Vietnam stands at 76 percent. Thailand fares better at 99 percent, but Myanmar sits at only 49 percent, according to the International Energy Agency.

There are two power generation models with which we might answer this challenge: a national power generation plan, with the backbone of a countrywide transmission grid; or the distributed power model, where power generation takes place — and is often utilized — locally.

National power generation requires an extensive transmission and distribution grid, often a costly exercise that will take years to develop. With many countries in this region being emerging economies and young democracies, developing the suitable infrastructure to meet supply and demand is truly challenging.

Energy efficiency in power generation is also heavily impacted by the choice of fuel and the efficiency of power plants; this includes, but is not limited to, operational and equipment efficiency. One of the most important factors that influence cost and performance in power generation is technology.

Currently in the ASEAN region the majority of power plants utilize a steam or gas turbine. The world’s most efficient gas turbine currently available is GE’s 9HA, which has an efficiency index of 61 percent. In addition, these gas turbines provide the lowest life cycle cost and carbon emissions. No system offers a higher rate. That is the kind of economy Disraeli would be proud of.

Aside from the generation type, the choice of fuel will also contribute to differences in tariff rates for the consumer, domestic and commercial alike. With governments, including the Malaysian, moving away from a reliance on subsidies, technological efficiency and the selection of fuel becomes an increasingly important consideration.

Reliable and flexible sources of power

Nations like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia in the region were once able to rely on a substantial amount of revenue from gas exports, helping to offset subsidies. As these reserves decline, so will the subsidies. Governments are then caught in a catch-22 situation; either continue fossil fuel subsidization, or phase out subsidies which will affect to the natural dismay of the people, the end consumers.

With this, comes an increased awareness of domestic fuel gas security, naturally sparking the debate for alternative options such as coal and renewables. However, it would be a few more years until parity between coal-and-gas-fired generation capacity is surpassed.

While regulators are lately trending towards large coal-fired plants, the environmental impact of burning coal proves a compelling argument against an over-reliance of it. According to an analysis by BCG, 50 percent of South East Asia’s power generation needs will be met by coal, compared to 30 percent in 2010. Currently, coal supplies 29.7 percent of energy use worldwide and is responsible for 44 percent of global CO2 emissions, posing a question mark on its efficacy.

Considering that the gas cost element can amount to 70 percent of operating expenditures, it is imperative for developers to adopt the technology which provides the most efficient generation, including best-in-class efficiency turbines available to remain competitive. One such example would be the 9HA gas turbine, billed as the most efficient in the world, reduction in CO2 output and importantly, lower operation or maintenance cost over the long term. This coupled with a strategic generation mix will ensure a sustainable and affordable cost of electricity for end users.

Distributed Power systems

While countries such as Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in the Greater Mekong Region may share a valuable sub-regional infrastructure, the practicalities of a similar shared grid over a broader regional basis are challenged by physical and political issues.

Distributed power however provides a viable answer to many of those challenges. On-site power production allows for access to electricity in rural areas with little or no power grid as well as provides flexibility to operate within stringent environmental regulations. Distributed power brings the added benefit of improving industrial and residential efficiency to ensure provision of emergency power in the event of natural disasters and other planned outages.

There is, it seems, a local and secure solution to the region’s energy needs, and one that could form the basis for further regional co-operation in future.

Where do we go from here?

As policy makers, regulators and utilities endeavor to identify an optimum generation mix, they will have to weigh the available technology that can be brought to bear in terms of greater operational efficiency and cost savings. Responsible countries have an obligation to take advantage of the most efficient technology available. More efficient turbines can provide that operational efficiency; using less fuel and reducing the demand for shrinking resources. Done correctly, this translates into cost savings, lower rates to the end user and a reduced environmental footprint. It’s our future.

A version of this story originally appeared on GE Reports Malaysia.