10 ways big data, analytics, and sensors are helping behind the scenes

New solutions based on IoT, analytics, and business intelligence are reaching into every corner of industry and commerce. Some of these examples might surprise you.

Image: University of Cambridge

We are surrounded by more "hidden" applications of big data, analytics, sensors, and business intelligence than we probably know—and in places where we might not imagine it. Here are 10 ways this behind-the-scenes tech is redefining how the world works.

1: Weather and political prediction systems for global supply chain and financial market impacts

With the impact of global warming and climate change, companies want to know in advance when areas of the world are likely to be affected by typhoons, heat waves, fire, and other weather calamities, The goal for companies with long, global supply chains is to predict (and prepare for) potential disruptions at suppliers and within their supply chains that could be brought about by a weather disturbance or possibly by political unrest. If a company sees that it has only one supplier of a highly critical component in a product, and the supplier is forecast to be in tycoon zone, the company will see what it can do about broadening its supply base for the component so it has other sources to rely on if an emergency arises. Financial services companies, too, want to have heads-up predictions on potential political and climatic disruptions around the world that could affect the financial markets and the strength of their portfolios.

2: Merchandising

For years, retailers have known that the most popular items should be placed on easy-to-access shelves, with the slower moving items paced on lower shelves. But with the advent of big data and the ability to capture live video and photo clips and combine them with data and other analytics, they can now chart the paths that shoppers take though stores, see which items they reach for most, and analyze their affinity for various items and how placement affects it. These new analytics take in-store merchandising to new levels.

3: Police suspect identification

In a high-speed chase or immediately after a crime has been committed, it's been difficult for officers to identify suspects who have fled the crime scene and pursue them for arrest. However, over the past 10 years federal, state, county, and city authorities have worked together to provide seamless access to a variety of databases at all levels of government. The databases contain both structured and unstructured data, including text-based entries from computer systems, fingerprints, photo IDs, and arrest records. This fingertip information, which officers can access from hardened laptops in their cars, increases the odds of rapidly identifying and catching up with suspects.

SEE: Police are now using drones to apprehend suspects and administer non-lethal force: A police chief weighs in

4: Robots for cleaning your floors and your carpets

If you're like most of us, cleaning up your house or apartment is not your favorite thing to do. But help is on the way. Robots are now commercially sold that can clean your floors and vacuum your carpets. How do they work? You attach a series of sensors to your furniture, walls, etc.—anything you want the robot to avoid hitting. This also circumscribes the area of the room that the robot is cleaning. From there, it's the Internet of Things (IoT) at work—with intelligence from the sensors being captured by the central control system of the appliance so it doesn't knick up your antiques.

SEE: Robots poised to ditch the boring tasks and take on new jobs

5: Medical patient demographics

More life- and heath-saving steps can be taken if medical clinics gain insights into demographic pockets of their patient populations—such as discovering that persons in certain geographic areas have a higher propensity for diabetes. Preventive medicine diagnostics are not as widely used today as they will be someday, but they hold great promise. The ability to predict conditions that are likely to affect patients before the conditions manifest themselves can assist patients in either lessening the impact of the disease or in avoiding it altogether.

6: Helping the blind see

Artificial vision systems that provide electrical activation of the retina can produce the sensation of light in a blind person. These systems consist of an image sensor, integrated circuits to generate stimulation pulses, packaging to protect the implanted circuits, and a flexible, two-dimensional microelectrode array that applies an electrical stimulus pattern to the retina.

7: Crime scene forensics

Time constraints, site access, and simple knowledge of the facts can complicate crime scene investigations. But now a combination of 3D laser scanning and sensors can calculate the distance between objects and time/stamp investigations of the scene for authentication in criminal proceedings. The scanner emits pulses of light that calculate the distance been objects and can capture data points at speeds up to 50,000 points per second. "It has become a standard part of our initial investigation process," said Chattanooga Police Sgt. and investigator Darrell Whitfield.

8: Building information modeling (BIM)

Imagine trying to determine the repercussions of constructing the foundation of a building in an earthquake-prone zone or estimating a remodeling project where you can't exactly tell how much impact rewiring will have on drywall, plaster, painting, etc. Today, many large and midsize construction and architectural firms are combining augmented reality, 3D imaging, and inputs of data from many sources into a BIM system that enables them to predict danger and cost overrun areas in projects before they submit a bid.

Brian Tigue is director of project controls for Skanska, which worked on the new Yankee Stadium build. He said, "We always use the analogy of missing a washer on one of the seats—just one little detail. Well, that's 82,000 seats that you missed this detail on. That turns out to be a big problem. The scale of a big job like a stadium really allows you to see those measurables."

9: Self-driving vehicle systems

LiDAR (light detection and ranging), infrared, and spectral sensors will get lighter and smaller in 2016. In the drone and driverless car worlds, these sensors help with collision avoidance. For drone-based applications, sensors with smaller and lighter footprints will be also be able to process video images with greater clarity.

SEE: A list of the world's self-driving cars racing toward 2020 (photos)

10: Inventory management

If you are a fuel seller and you have a network of gas stations as clients, it's in your best interest to minimize trips to the field to check on supply levels. You also want to know which stations are your most profitable clients. Many fuel sellers now do this remotely by attaching sensors to tank systems at stations and measuring the amount and the speed of consumption. This enables them to better manage their inventories and to determine where their most profitable clients are, which helps their marketing strategies.

Other applications?

Have you encountered other behind-the-scenes applications of big data, analytics, and sensors? Share you experiences with fellow TechRepublic members.

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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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