Big Data
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Storytelling with data

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As technology changes the way we read, we readers are in a continual state of beta and debate. Can you truly enjoy a novel in the subway on your iPhone? (My husband swears he does). Which time shifting apps are best? (I like Instapaper). How do we make time to read away from the frenzied streams of texts and Tweets that interrupt our screens? (I haven’t a clue).

But all of the debate about these developments concerns reading words, which we’ve been doing for a long time. A bigger change in reading is emerging as we become better able to meaningfully understand and visualize the data pulsing through our ever connected world. Humans are starting to be able to easily read fast-streaming numbers – data – and we’re going to get better at it.

Those numbers can tell compelling stories. Luckily, sophisticated data visualization techniques and software innovations enable the storytelling, offering actionable new insights about the world around us. And it’s just beginning, because now the world’s machines—jet engines, gas turbines, medical devices in hospitals, refrigerators, cars—are coming online on a huge scale, joining the billions of humans already connected.

Reading machines will change the way we live, but only if it is enabled by clear stories—whether told using dynamic data visualization, intuitive software or some combination of both—that not only inform but prompt useful action.

It’s useful to consider an existing example of machine reading, along with newer ones that shed light on what the future holds.

The electric meter as raconteur?

For many decades now, we’ve been reading the electric meter, and yet most of us still have a difficult time making sense of its story. That’s because most utility bills fall short of conveying the data in an accessible way that can motivate new behavior (like reducing needless or peak-hour consumption). A Chicago start-up called Power2Switch is trying to change that, and its sample electricity bill shows how effective good data storytelling can be. Designed by Kaila Dunn, the new bill uses charts, primary colors and multiple typefaces to highlight the most important information—like monthly usage and amount due. Power2Switch hopes the new look will help customers understand their energy usage better, making them more aware of their impact on the environment (and their own wallets).

How machine literacy is improving air travel, train movement and hospital efficiency

At GE, we call the great connection of the world’s machines to our digital networks the “Industrial Internet.” Machines talk to machines but you need artificial and human intelligence to make sense of it and to make it actionable.  Here are just three examples:

- Facebook for jet engines: The numbers flowing from the most advanced jet engines tell a story that contains incredible value for airlines and other aircraft operators. Mobile software applications – we call them My Engines – now allow engine maintenance managers a simple and intuitive way to track entire fleets or single engines in real time, before servicing is required and giving insights into future service and airline operations. The result is better efficiency, money saved and more on-time flights.

- Optimizing rail: Locomotives are telling similar stories to train network dispatchers, prompting fuel, cost and time savings. Currently, the journey of each individual train in a rail system has to be separately managed, causing delays. With smart train software, each locomotive can visualize for dispatchers where it is and how fast it’s moving, and in turn optimize efficiency in the overall system.

- Care traffic control: With every medical device in an ER connected, medical staff can find what they need easier and know ahead of time whether a piece of equipment needs to be cleaned or recharged, saving time and ultimately money and patient lives. Other software crunches the numbers flowing from devices and even ambulances on the way to the ER to anticipate and avoid bottlenecks.

A story yet to be written

While these examples of the Industrial Internet in action offer tantalizing glimpses of how we might read machines to make better decisions and improve outcomes, this is still the first chapter in what will be an epic, data-driven story. And it’s opening up opportunities not only for software and data scientists but also for designers and storytellers who can translate numbers into easily understood graphics and images. As we continue to do so, we’ll be able to learn a lot from the machines in our world. And have a bigger impact on how well the world works.