Big Data

What would you do with 1.6 petabytes of data? Not much I hear some of you say. Might use it for a door stopper! Well you can do a lot with it.

Let’s take a step back. What is a petabyte? Lets put it in practical terms. The old floppy disc, remember those? Well they stored a few hundred kilobites, less than a megabyte. Not much in other words. Then came CD-Rom disks, they also stored around 700 megabytes but less than a gigabyte. Then we introduced flash drives and some of them can store a good number of gigabytes, which is a lot of megabytes. Then we introduced portable hard drives which have a storage capacity of one or more terabytes.

This is all very well but what about petabytes. Well when you have a lot of data storage and capacity to exchange data – a little ol terabyte just doesnt cut the mustard. Big storage is measured (at present) in petabytes. How much storage is in a single petabyte? If you could gather 1000 portable hard drives, each with a capacity of one terabyte, there you have it. To get a sense of perspective, I sat down with a bourban and coke with my ol mate Wiki (pedia). He’s a bit of a know all but he a good sort. Now Wiki tells me that back in 2009, Google processed around 24 petabytes of data per day. Is that a lot I asked? Wiki just nodded and poured me another drink.

Okay, now I can see some of you are yawning, wondering where this is all heading? Let’s return to my original question. What could you do with 1.6 petabytes of data at your disposal?

Let me tell you what a hospital in Berlin did with their data.  Charite University of Medicine, Europes largest university hospital, instead of relying upon historical data, have made real time data available to everyone of their 700 staff – on every computer, tablet, pda, smart phone and Maxwell Smart watch. While there is 1.6 petabytes of data available, in reality only about 5% of that is used for daily decision making. . It’s a bit like having 700 mini-Googles or Wiki-offshoots running around in a cloud of data. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Why is this unusual? Because the vast majority of hospitals, aged care providers and nonprofit agencies (that is 99.9%) don’t do this. They hide their data on servers in a back room, they create barriers to access, they segment users, they filter access. Most importantly they forsake one of their most valuable assets. They ignore the capacity of the human brain to process vast amounts of data, to identify patterns and to make decisions.

For the past forty or so years teams of scientists around the world have been trying to establish just how it is our brain actually functions. At the same time, other teams have been trying to create artifical brains. Yet at the practical, day-to-day, lets get stuff done level, we haven’t worked out how to bring the two sets of brains together. Each of our organisations is a vast repository of data. Each of our people has access to multiple means of accessing data. Each of our people has a 3kg brain capable of processing data.

Imagine at Charite University hospital, 700 x 3kg = 2 tonnes of physical brains sharing and processing billions of pieces of data on an as needed basis. Charite discovered this real time access to data improved how senior management obtained a ‘big picture’ of activities and enabled them to relate actitives to costs and revenue as they occured. I suspect also that making data available in real time to anyone that wanted to access it would also reduce the selective ‘filtering’ that takes place as information moves from one layer to another. Charite hospital also found that access to data in real time enabled them to better utilise resources and reduce wastage. It also lead to better medical outcomes for patients.

Information was always expected to be the great leveller. It was supposed to break down the barriers. Instead, many simply erected greater barriers in the mistaken belief that those with the information have the power. Maybe they do, but where is the value in power if you fail to use the tools in a positive and productive manner?

Your organisation can do the same as Charite. It will not be easy. There are numerous cultural and policy barriers to be overcome.

I leave you with this thought. We keep pouring money into service provision. We claim to need greater technology, more resources, more people, better facilities. I wonder if we are pouring money into the ‘right’ areas? I wonder if instead of ‘more’ we could do ‘better’?

Those are my thoughts for the day

Let The Journey Continue

John Coxon



About John Coxon

Principal consultant for John Coxon & Associates, a management consultancy working with boards and management teams in healthcare, aged care and not for profit organisations to develop effective strategic planning processes and social enterprise business plans
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