Smart Buildings Thrive on Big Data

Johnson Controls turns construction projects into complex information networks.

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Smart buildings have big data issues. The smarter they are, the bigger those issues are likely to be. But the amount of data is only the beginning. In addition to size, the variety of information and how it is used has spawned a demand for solutions that will reduce energy costs from commercial buildings to data centers and improve data delivery for their owners.

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, selected by U.S. News as a Most Connected Company, is improving information management in buildings to cut costs and give its customers a measure of control in this process.

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"Big data boils down to volume, velocity, and variety," says Laura Farnham, Johnson's vice president of building technology and services. "There's a lot of data generated by building systems. So volume is probably the biggest element of big data today. But that volume has a lot of variety." Information available from systems in modern buildings include everything from utility meter data to measures of temperature and humidity, security card entry swipes, and computer log-ons.

"Regardless of the volume or the source, it's really about being able to collect and normalize that data," says Farnham. "We do that through cloud-hosted software applications. By applying intelligence and fault-detection diagnostics, we provide solutions that make building management more predictable and cost-effective."

For example, Johnson's systems can monitor a building's headcount, then turn off the lights, adjust the temperature, and perform other services when occupancy is reduced. All of this underscores a new reality: Smart buildings themselves are no longer simply workplaces. They have become repositories of data that serve numerous purposes. Being able to efficiently and cost-effectively analyze that information for a wide range of customers is key.

Farnham says the company can service a single hospital or a Fortune 500 company with a global portfolio of buildings. "We often see companies with lots of buildings along with lots of data," she says. "But they usually start small, then analyze the benefits. We can scale up or down to fit the customer's size. We not only have the technical architecture to move from a single building to a global enterprise, but the ability to move to the cloud."

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This is where data variety influences size. "A typical building that we see contains various automated systems from various suppliers installed by different technicians over the life of that building," says Joe Noworatzky, the firm's vice president of engineering, building technology, and services. "The most mundane piece of data, like room temperature, can be labeled in different ways depending on the system and who installed it. It could mean nothing to anyone but the technician who installed it. And the thing we've struggled with the most—and made the most progress with—is making that kind data meaningful."

Making a distinction between critical and ancillary data depends on the situation. "If the goal is to be more predictive in delivering a consistent level of comfort to a building, they might need different data sets," Noworatzky says. "How should it be collected? Do we need 1,000 data points every second or a 100 every 15 minutes?"

"It's different from other industries where the data is consumer-oriented and identifies trends," he adds. "Building data is more complicated. Creating a context that interprets what the data means for a building is really critical."

As Bill Kosick, director of energy and sustainability at Hewlett Packard put it, big data can be another computing cliché "unless it is used to analyze large amounts of information and give back meaningful data that can be used to make decisions regarding energy efficiency." For example, HVAC—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—is a large cost for building owners that Johnson Controls leverages big data to reduce. "We want to get that data out of the system to understand performance and reduce energy consumption," says Noworatzky. "A lot of the smart building data is from HVAC systems. That's an opportunity to wring out cost."