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Daedalus was the mythical great architect and artificer of the classical world. Today, embedded intelligence is enabling the most profound changes in the way we create and use buildings since his day.

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« The Case for oBIX in Laboratory systems | Sloppy Wet in Carolina »
Tuesday
Oct302007

Getting Past the Alligators

"Don't solve problems, pursue opportunities.” — Peter Drucker

There are lots of problems associated with bringing transparency to building operations. The EBMS project (see archives for details) I am working on offers me new problems every day. Today a friend and co-worker reminded me to think of why we started this project, and what the real value is.

The EBMS project has to provide a central vendor agnostic means to monitor and operate the energy using systems across the campus. It shows every promise of doing so, despite repeated problems of security, and definition, and great fear from line managers that no one has ever done it before. Of even more concern to many is that it brings transparency to operations that have always been, to the building inhabitant: invisible and unknowable. What if the building tenants want to interact with how things are done?

There are similarities with the oBIX committee. I came to the oBIX committee having spent several years writing, and speaking on the benefits of allowing access to building operating information, of extracting more value from each system, of transforming and expanding the resources available for pedagogy and research. The oBIX committee, alas, is about who shows up from which company. Companies may participate to open new opportunity or, more frequently, to watch for new competition. Everything takes too long and free speaking offends those who have market positions to defend.

As Ronald Reagan said (in the only clean version of a much older quote), “When you are up to you armpits in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp." Today, while talking with this friend, I was reminded why we ventured into this swamp, and why it is important to wrestle or slay these alligators.

Single purpose data is one of the most expensive resources of any organization. Single purpose data is comforting to the current politics of any organization. Single purpose data cannot be used for any reason other than what it was designed for. Single purpose data only rarely rises to the level of information. Information that is horded and isolated never becomes knowledge.

Knowledge is power, they say. When share information, you change the power relationships in any organization. Technology is hard, design requires work, but changing the power relationships, that is politics, and politics releases the largest and hungriest alligators.

We had a vision without alligators. We had a vision that maximized the University’s return on investment by maximizing the value received. Sensors cost what they cost. The low voltage systems that string them together cost what they cost. The value, however, the value is in how many ways you can use the information. Opening the doors to information opens up the organization to new sources of value. If you can expand value while maintaining a fixed cost, you come out ahead.

Recently we have caught glimpses of this. A professor in Biology requested the availability of our operations data, i.e., minute by minute temperature, light, and humidity, for experimenters in the new greenhouses. The Archeology department wants ready access to all information on managing their archives. The Geology department can let students pull live data from the outside air sensors in hundreds of buildings to better understand microclimates across campus. Information pulled from mapping, from building operations, and from the chilled water loop can help engineers understand big picture issues abstracted away from the mechanical details.

And that is just in mechanical systems. Later this week I will write on the opportunities in exposing laboratory systems to open interfaces. At the end of it all, we started this work to expand value.

It’s just that the alligators are so large, they get all our attention.

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