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Social Innovation

Digital Insights from the Physical World
Combine the mighty stream of data from the physical and digital worlds for the common good

Combine the mighty streams of data from the physical and digital worlds for the common good

Online stores and websites have long understood the value of the data that streams into their sites every day from digital sources. For nearly 20 years, they have used A/B and multivariate testing and fed that online data into web analytics engines to better understand their visitors’ desires, driving more traffic to their sites and keeping customers satisfied with the products, services and content they want. But this steady stream of data is a trickle compared to the flood of data starting to pour in from the billions of internet of things (IoT) devices around the world.1 According to research group IDC, IoT will generate 163 zettabytes of data by 2025.2 Tapping into this data could be like trying to drink from a fire hose – impossible without applications and analytics to turn that data into insights and alerts about the world we work and live in.

With this growing stream of data from devices, organizations can gain insights from the physical world as well as the digital world. These insights provide new opportunities for businesses and communities to be more effective and efficient, and to truly thrive. Best of all, everyone benefits when efficiencies lead to reduced waste, emissions and other harmful by-products of developing and modern economies. Data-driven approaches can make our world not only more sustainable, but also a better place to live.


The retail apocalypse is upon us. Thousands of stores are expected to close in the next few years, and experts predict that 25 percent of malls in the U.S. will shutter their doors by 2022 as people continue to purchase more goods online.3 Although brick-and-mortar stores aren’t expected to go away completely, retailers will need to change how they are used. If these retailers are to survive, let alone thrive, they’ll need to tap into the flow of data from sources such as video and other IoT devices that tell them about the physical world in and around their stores, including their customers’ behavior.

This data can help retailers better understand how shoppers are using their stores, as well as help them fine-tune their inventory and the customer experience. For example, with video analytics such as people counting, a store owner can automatically determine how many people walk past the store versus how many enter. They can then try different window displays or signage to determine which changes drive increased store visits. Once consumers enter the store, the retailer can combine in-store analytics with other information to gain insights into valuable questions like: Where do consumers spend the most time? Which products are they interacting with? Which products are they looking at and not buying, but later buying online? This understanding will help retailers provide an optimized, omnichannel experience that their customers will both love and reward with their purchases.

Industrial and Manufacturing

Although automation and robotics have been driving manufacturing and industry for decades, many companies are not taking advantage of the data collected and analyzed by their devices. For example, the average warehouse loses $390,000 a year from mis-picks caused by manual inventory counts,4 a cost that could be significantly reduced by leveraging the data produced by the warehouse’s IoT devices to automate the inventory process.

Similarly, data from devices such as video cameras, motion detectors, and heat and vibration sensors can be used to improve factory operations and safety, reducing injuries and saving lives, in addition to saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Managers can use video analytics to better understand how workers assemble products, so they can coach them on how to be more effective and do higher-quality work. Motion and intrusion detectors can provide real-time alerts when a worker falls or enters an unsafe area, reducing accidents and improving safety. And real-time physical data can be used to alert managers when a machine requires maintenance, avoiding costly breakdowns and production stoppages.

Transportation and City Planning

By 2030, traffic gridlock in the U.S will increase by 50 percent and cost Americans $186 billion annually.5 As if the economic cost weren’t bad enough, the human cost is worse – air pollution kills more than 7 million people worldwide per year.6 More effective, efficient and sustainable transportation is key to a livable environment, and physical-world data can help. For example, IoT data can help cities optimize public transit, maximizing ridership and fostering sustainability. With data generated by smart video cameras and other devices, transit organizations can deploy the exact number of buses and trains to meet demand, give passengers real-time information about capacity, and deliver a public transit experience that encourages broader use.

Data from IoT devices can also help cities optimize their current infrastructure – an important consideration for densely populated urban areas. For example, traffic cameras can track how many bikes, cars, trucks and buses drive down a street, where people park, and where congestion occurs. They can also detect people in the crosswalk to help reduce or even eliminate pedestrian fatalities. City planners can use simulations to test changes without interrupting actual traffic. They can then identify ways to improve traffic flow, such as changing parking spaces to passenger loading zones for frequent double-parking problem areas.

Directing the Mighty Flow of Data

The flood of data from new technologies like IoT, artificial intelligence and video intelligence can seem overwhelming. But mastering this flow is not only possible, it is essential. The digital world has come a long way by taking data-driven approaches to improvement – it’s time for the physical world to catch up and reach its full potential. By complementing digital-world data with data from the physical world, the resultant analytics can provide actionable insights that help leaders in businesses and communities understand what’s happening and where, accurately calculate the impact of potential changes, and optimize precious resources to improve sustainability, business and, ultimately, society.