Big data archaeology and the consulting engineer

The digital footprint we create today will help anthropologists tomorrow.


William Kosik is principal data center energy technologist with HP Technology Services, Chicago. Courtesy: HP Technology ServicesWe live in a data-rich world. Data is pervasive in our daily lives: digital photos, e-mail, social media, financial transactions, tollbooth photos, medical records, tax documents, shopping, mobile phones, GPS—the list goes on. Modern anthropologists and archaeologists study human activity in the past, mainly from the retrieval and examination of the environmental data that is left behind. Looking at clues from past cultures, including artifacts, architecture, and other archaeological features, the researchers develop what is called the archaeological record. From this record we can gain a better understanding of human cultures. So what will our archaeological record tell future scientists about us?

Instead of excavating a site looking for built structures, garbage, and plant and animal remains, these data archaeologists will undoubtedly use our digital footprint to piece together a picture of our culture and society. At the individual level, they will be able to discern things like how healthy we were, our income level and place in society, our religious practices, any run-ins with the law, what type of house we lived in, and what type and how many friends we had (both real and virtual). These are the same types of information that current-day archaeologists want to know about their subjects. Future scientists, however, won't have to perform dusty excavations in remote corners of the world; they will simply have to study our big data, which is growing at an exponential rate as I write this. (In this case, I am defining big data as a dataset that falls outside the capacity of generally used analysis tools to acquire, store, administer, and sort out the data within a reasonable amount of time.)

It is believed that in the future, due to continual improvements technology, computer speed and processing power will actually make this knowledge extraction from big data relatively simple. So it is very likely that there will be no gap in generational knowledge transfer and it will become the norm to have access (with the appropriate permissions, of course) to one's detailed ancestry and family tree. Take this type of knowledge base and multiply it by a few billion families globally and you can see how we get the "big" in big data.

What is the relevance of this to the consulting engineering community? The ability to use big data for a multitude of purposes will continue to increase the amount of computer processing, storage, and networking. Even as computers become more power-efficient, the demand for compute power will overtake the gains in energy efficiency, so more computers, more data centers, more air conditioning, and more electricity will be required.

Consulting engineers play a pivotal role in the planning, design, construction, and commissioning of these systems. And as our society (globally) continues to rely on big data to conduct our daily lives and provide opportunity for others to improve theirs, consulting engineers' expertise will continue to be in demand. So next time you like something on Facebook, send out a Tweet, or post a photo to Instagram, remember that you're helping to build big data and helping future archaeologists understand who we were.

William Kosik is principal data center energy technologist with HP Technology Services, Chicago. Kosik is one of the main technical contributors shaping HP Technologies Services’ energy and sustainability expertise and consults on client assignments worldwide. A member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board, he has written more than 20 articles and spoken at more than 35 industry conferences.

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