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A Take on Tech: Big Data

Illustration courtesy of Doug Wittnebel

Following the rapid growth of cloud computing, the term “big data” has achieved peak media attention. It has also surfaced in a number of recent conversations with Gensler’s tech clients, and so it behooves us as architects to understand the meaning and implications of Big Data for our business, our clients, and the spaces we design for them.

I recently had the chance to listen to David Corrigan, a director of product marketing for IBM’s InfoSphere platform. This platform is a suite of tools for businesses that must confront large amounts of data, and Corrigan spoke with us about the implications of the question that’s on everyone’s mind: What is Big Data?

According to Corrigan, data describes the ever-growing volume, variety and velocity of information that businesses (and thus people) deal with. “Data’s coming at organizations more quickly than ever before,” he told us. In some cases, the insights they need to glean from this constant stream have “a really short shelf life.” And although there is a lot of hype around Big Data from technology trade publications and IT blogs, as well as mainstream media, he told us not to ignore it. The attention is deserved.

Here is my view on big data, announcements, hype, attention and glamour…

1. Why all the hype?

Every day we create 2.5 quintillion (that’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000) bytes of data. To put this in perspective, 90% of the data in the world today has been created in just the last two years.

Gensler’s clients are responding quickly to a growing link between personal mobility, digital devices, cloud computing, and Big Data, and in some cases have asked us to assist with the quick delivery of work/lab space for their swelling ranks of engineers and thinkers.

Illustration courtesy of Doug Wittnebel

2. How does Big Data change Gensler’s tech clients’ business?

In a recent Wired magazine interview, Oxford University professor Victor Mayer-Schonberger, co-author with Kenneth Cukier of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think,* had something interesting to say:

Wired: How is this changing computer science. Does everyone need to be a programmer?

Mayer-Schonberger: Yes, we still need a very large population of programmers, but programming will change in the sense that programming will focus more on Big Data and data analytics rather than web user interface or transaction programming as has happened in the past. At the end of the day, it’s still writing code to manipulate data, but it will have a different application and a different goal.

Gensler’s current range of tech clients includes numerous businesses at the forefront of Big Data, in multiple sectors, from the ways the data are crunched to how they are implemented. Here’s just a sample:

  • Semiconductors
  • Internet-based services
  • Software development
  • Data management
  • Cloud computing
  • Consumer gaming
  • Electronics
  • Telecommunications/mass media

How will Big Data change the way these clients do business, in how their workplaces are designed and configured? It’s a question we’re beginning to help them answer. (But see point #4 for more.)

3. What does Big Data mean for us businesses?

Data is king for companies looking to attract new customers and keep their current ones happy. User feedback and interactions, purchase history, and other data are the information fuel that drives companies to stay ahead of the pack.

“Those who can analyze Big Data may see past market superstitions and conventional thinking,” notes Corrigan. “Not because they’re smarter, but because they have the information.” This data can generate tremendous value for those businesses that are able to use it — to improve decision making, to discover trends, to customize services, and to innovate new products and business models. “The problem is that most businesses aren’t ready to manage this flood of data,” Corrigan adds, “much less do anything interesting with it.” In other words, the potential to effect big changes in the marketplace, and thus for consumers, remains vast.

Illustration courtesy of Doug Wittnebel

4. What does Big Data mean to us as designers?

For Gensler’s design teams, grappling with the impact of Big Data means several things: Research will become more important, and our clients will be asking for more data-driven decisions. Our building designs will need to focus more on systems and feedback and incorporate metrics for energy delivery and building controls. Our planning processes for buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions are intrinsically tied to high-performance databases and future predictive context models.

In the end, however, as wonderful and helpful as all of this information can be, it has its limits, limits that we as designers are trained to work past. Like a lump of clay, Big Data is potentially terrific, but inert. On its own, it will never create anything. Instead, it requires the practiced hand of the designer, working in concert with the client, to make something not only useful, but even beautiful from the ever-cascading flow of Big Data.

The next Take on Tech blog will look at m2m and RFID topics.

*As the title indicates, Mayer-Schonberger, an Oxford professor who studies information technology, and Cukier, an editor at The Economist, are excited by Big Data, but their book is more than simple cheerleading from the sideline. It’s a nuanced and remarkably readable account of the technological changes that have made the Big Data era possible, and a primer on many of the interesting things that are happening at the intersection of powerful computer processing, machine learning, and data analytics.

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (11)

Thanks for this post, I also wanted to add this article to the discussion (interesting for designers and space-makers to consider): http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/01/forget-big-data-think-long-data
03.26.2013 | Unregistered Commentermelanie
Big data is like a person who never forgets combined with all other people who never forget a single experience, nuance, color or taste. Combining this; "Big Data" is more than a sophisticated reference tool. Think of averaging the numbers 1,5,2,4...you get 3. Yet "3" was not part of the original set.

Big Data allows us to 'see' the future by combining all the, so-far, experienced possibilities into an 'answer' for our query. This is different than someone or someones with high IQs try to be 'smart' and provide an answer or prediction.

With enough data, sometimes, seemingly unconnected data, Big Data will be able to predict weather, stock movements, when you will die, and how many first date kisses will occur on an particular Friday night.

I wonder what's for dinner.....
03.26.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Hewett
The value of big data is dependent on being able to ask the right questions. For our clients, the roles of programmer, analyst and market researcher will become more intertwined – and it will be our role to facilitate a work environment that supports their unique expectations of functional and productive integrated workspace.

As designers, we’ll be providing the collaboration spaces, collision spaces and focus spaces that enable the big ideas to speed from inception to data driven result – faster than the competition!

Even more exciting (or scary?) is the potential for our work to be influenced by evidence of metrics that will improve environments beyond the tech industry. Perhaps a team’s tracked keystrokes will identify periods of highly productive work and then suggest a group rest or fun break afterward when productivity lags. Aggregated social, financial or health data could reveal the best employee benefits and amenities to attract and retain talented staff. Or maybe buying habits can help predict the tipping point for new technologies or trends. The possibilities are endless – if you know what to look for.
03.26.2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Stewart
Data is not knowledge.
Converting data into knowledge, and finding useful applications is the key to leveraging big data.
GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out applies at an even larger scale with BIG Data.
Caveat emptor.
03.27.2013 | Unregistered CommenterKent Hikida
Nice work, Doug. Is there a "Peak Data" narrative/mythology that is being developed, similar to the "Peak Oil" journey? The Peak Oil discussions (although completely unresolved) have allowed us to visualize the limits of hydrocarbons, and thus plan for alternative futures. Does the "Big Data" world consider its journey to be without limits (similar to oil in the 1960's) , and thus not able to imagine an alternative?
03.27.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMac Walcott
I just got back from an ADP conference (Gensler's partner for the payroll functions), where Big Data was a very hot topic. The primary conversation about it was how to manage the Big Data globally, while still honoring security requirements for all countries. Its fancinating what we're up against, from supporting Gensler's clients and to supporting internal Gensler's buisness functions. Very glad to see this conversation... thanks for the insight Doug!
03.28.2013 | Unregistered CommenterIggy Svoboda
Doug, thanks for sharing your article on this important topic. To benefit from "Big Data" in building integration and achieving building sustainability far beyond, we need to see through the 'Big Data" in real time by finding relatively accurate functions where the noises are removed. This leads us towards smarter building automation and more sustainable buildings.
03.28.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMoh Heidari
Hi Doug, this is an important topic that the AE community must embrace when designing our next generation buildings and spaces. The built environment is filled with so much "exhaust" data from electronic devices and systems that we don't capture and put to use. One important and easily measured category of big data is the movement of electronic devices within the building. From this we can infer utilization, how people use space, and deploy strategies that improve collaboration and right-size real estate portfolios. Thanks for calling attention to it.

"If you can not measure it, you can not improve it" - Lord Kelvin
03.29.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Marks
I am thrilled to see the great comments and written responses to this topic. This will no doubt help me with the next blog posting on m2m and rfid elements.
03.29.2013 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel
metrics and manipulating the data will change how companies do business to keep competitive. good post
03.31.2013 | Unregistered Commenterdavid hite

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