Big Data Use Cases: Developing a Smarter World

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big dataGrowing concerns about climate change, pollution, and energy costs have prompted new paradigms of consumption and sustainability to crystallize. In response to evolving concerns, a number of countries and large cities have focused on the development of Smart Cities and Smart Grids, using technology to support an infrastructure managed by Artificial Intelligence and Big Data Analytics.

Smart Cities

Cities and their surrounding urban areas take up three percent of the world’s land surface but provide sixty-eighty percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cities consume seventy-five percent of the world’s natural resources and eighty percent of the world’s global energy supply. More efficient cities would be a benefit to mankind, and less damaging to the planet.

Smart Cities offer their citizens a high quality of life with minimal consumption of energy resources. This is accomplished by way of intelligent interconnections within the infrastructure (electricity, heat, transportation, communications, and Smart Buildings) sharing Big Data. Technological advances such as low-cost Cloud storage and the Internet of Things (IoT), combined with inexpensive sensors, have allowed smart cities to track huge amounts of information ranging from gunshots to air pollution to traffic. Also, smartphone apps allow both citizens and city workers, to monitor problems and send feedback to city hall.

The Swiss Federal Office of Energy, for example, initiated a pilot program titled Smart City Switzerland in 2012. They brought together representatives from business, public administration, and universities to rethink the urban environment. Smart City Switzerland currently has over sixty projects underway way and supports new scientific partnerships and innovation.

New York City has also taken steps to become a Smart City. New York City was recognized for its initiative, Building a Smart & Equitable City. One example of this initiative in practice is the use of sensors to control air pollution caused by the burning of heavy fuel oils in buildings.

Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Clean Energy

Big Data is transforming the energy industry as a whole, making it more flexible and efficient by coordinating wind and solar energy with traditional energy sources. Networks of sensors can be installed to detect changes in weather and wind speeds. These sensors combined with Big Data – and a few useful algorithms – can:

  • Help develop more efficient methods for harnessing renewable energy, such as the improvement of solar panel or wind turbine locations.
  • Help predict weather patterns and the energy needed for human comfort during that weather so energy companies can generate enough electricity during peak demand and lower production as demand comes down.
  • Identify and educate wasteful consumers regarding efficient energy consumption.

Bringing Artificial Intelligence into the mix can:

  • Allow for communication with smart thermostats to coordinate demand on overextended energy grids.
  • Use power line sensors to identify areas with changing energy needs.
  • Deal with power fluctuations, solar flares, cyberattacks, and other disruptions.

The U.S. Department of Energy is supporting a new project, called the Grid Resilience and Intelligence Project (GRIP). On Sept 12, 2017, the project was granted $6 million for three years of research. GRIP is the first project to use AI to help electrical grids deal with problems. The project will develop algorithms to learn about electrical grids by studying smart meter data, and peripheral information, such as satellite and street-view imagery and electric vehicle charging data.

Smart Grids

Serious concerns about the environmental damage caused by coal-fired power stations and the potential hazards of nuclear power have prompted demand for renewable energy. However, solar and wind power are highly variable and provide intermittent power levels, at best. Both energy sources rely on weather patterns that cannot be controlled. A Smart Grid solves this problem by taking excess electricity from where it is not being used and sending it to areas needing it.

Sudden “surges of electricity” from alternative sources can also be a problem. At present, a grid is designed to handle a steady power level and could run into major problems if it suddenly received large surges of electricity from outside sources. A cloudy day that suddenly becomes clear could produce a surge of electricity. A sudden gust of wind could do the same thing. A surge of electricity can burn out a fuse in the power line system or easily damage electrical generators running at a constant speed, causing traditional power facilities (specifically, coal plants) to run much less efficiently.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Smart Grid is the matching of supply and demand, which is called load balancing, and prevents electrical surge damage to the generators. Algorithms designed to collect and process Smart Grid data have been developed and are currently being improved upon. The need for sophisticated control systems has become obvious, and Smart Grids are the solution.


Microgrids coordinate with the existing electrical systems and network infrastructure and can feed electricity back to the main grid if it is suffering a power outage. A microgrid is typically a small community or corporate energy system, normally made up of solar panels or wind turbines, and independent from the main electrical grid. The main purpose of a microgrid is to provide communities with reliable, affordable energy. Benefits include reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting electrical costs for local residents.

In Brooklyn, a startup called LO3 Energy, is coordinating with Siemens Digital Grid to test a new microgrid system. Members of the neighborhood with and without solar panels are buying and selling electricity to one another. They use a Blockchain platform which documents each transaction automatically. Also, should city electricity go down, this isolated network can operate self-sufficiently, providing the local community with power. LO3 plans to incorporate a system of batteries throughout the grid, to keep the lights on during storm-related emergencies.

Smart City Case Studies


Zurich, Switzerland, holds the title of Most Sustainable City in the World. It was at the top of the Arcadis 2016 Sustainable Cities Index, which compared Zurich’s public transit system, financial industry, and high quality of life to other large cities around the world. Zurich receives financial support for its Smart City initiatives from Switzerland, which is a member of the ERA-NET Smart Cities and Communities (ENSCC), along with eleven other European countries. ENSCC goals include improving and developing:

  • The use of Big Data and Smart Data
  • Smart, integrated urban transport systems
  • Smart, integrated urban energy-efficient systems
  • Smart tools for integrated transport and energy-efficient systems
  • Smart governance with smart citizens

Smart building management systems have become a reality in Zurich. In the fall of 2015, interconnected electrical, cooling, and heating systems regulated and controlled by an intelligent management system were installed in a number buildings, including the Swisscom building. This resulted in a significant drop in CO2 emissions and provided living spaces which were more harmonious with the natural environment.

In the southern part of Zurich, a sustainable living area is being developed. It is called Greencity- Zurich. One of the goals for this section of the city is residents using less than 2000 watts per day by 2050 without lowering the standard of living. Residential and commercial buildings are powered by rooftop solar panels supplemented by a small hydroelectric power plant. A mixture of shopping, living space, and offices are planned, complete with schools, day care centers, and facilities for senior citizens.

The energy used by Greencity-Zurich is taken completely from 100% renewable sources, with approximately 70% of its electricity generated by local, roof-mounted solar panels and other alternative sources. A Smart Grid is used to control the generation, distribution, and storage of electricity. Surplus electricity is used for electric vehicles or stored to meet future needs. Zurich’s power plant has agreed to supply renewable energy to the Greencity for heating and cooling using a system of geothermal probes and groundwater wells.

New York City

New York City was named the Best Smart City of 2016 during the Smart City Expo World Congress held in Spain. Recognition was given to the city’s Building a Smart & Equitable City initiative, developed by the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation. The initiative promotes the use of the Internet of Things while promoting cybersecurity.

These are some examples of New York City’s efforts at becoming a Smart City:

  • LinkNYC uses the city’s payphones to create a network providing public Wi-Fi, device charging stations, and phone calls. In the process, New York City created the world’s fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network. At present, hundreds of thousands of people have used the new Wi-Fi system well over 50 million times.
  • Urban Tech NYC is a program offering over 100,000 square feet of reasonably priced space and equipment for entrepreneurs to develop smart and sustainable solutions in the areas of waste, energy, transportation, water, and agriculture.
  • $18.6 million has been invested in a connected-vehicle pilot program, coordinated with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Jeff Merritt, a director at the Office of Technology and Innovation, stated:

“When used effectively, IoT devices, like sensors that capture pollution in the air or lights that only turn on when someone is in the room, can produce cost savings, bolster civic engagement, and strengthen public health and safety. As cities move into the future, municipal leaders must also be cognizant of, and actively mitigate, the challenges and risks raised by these technologies, most notably in areas of public privacy and security.”


Photo Credit: TierneyMJ/

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