Sustainable Innovation Needs Technology Solutions and Computing at the Edge

The phrase “going off the grid” brings to my mind a cabin deep in the woods and very little contact with the outside world; but, rather than living on the edge of society it could mean “computing at the edge.”

Edge computing refers to many different possibilities, but in general it pushes applications and data analytics away from centralized physical hardware hubs to the extremes of a network. It was something several of the people I heard speak here at Dell headquarters this Earth Day mention when talking about a more sustainable future and the role technology can play.

“There are 20 million organizations around the world working to improve our planet, but they aren’t working together and sometimes even compete against each other,” Ron Garan said.

Garan has gone farther off the grid than the average person with 2,842 orbits of Earth and 178 days in space. The retired NASA astronaut is also a serial entrepreneur and started Manna Energy Foundation to focus on the development and implementation of technologies and the resulting social enterprise to power clean energy, water and telecoms. Ready to pitch in where he can, Garan also hopped on a bicycle today to help power the music at our Earth Day celebration.

But before putting in the pedal power, Garan discussed how the big data those millions of social good organizations hold around the edges of our connected world could be put to a greater use.

“We need to transform our mindset so that data sharing is viewed as a good thing. It’s the only way we’ll solve the problems,” he stressed. “Each organization has a piece of the puzzle and we need to bring them together.”

Pulling together an incredible velocity of data from smaller points is the challenge on which Pecan Street Inc CEO Brewster McCracken said they are focused. Started in 2009 with seed funding from The University of Texas, Pecan Street is advancing university research and accelerating innovation in water and energy – not just in Texas, although water use is a big topic in this big state.

Urban water use in Texas is growing nine times faster than all other uses combined, according to the Texas Water Development Board, and we’re in the midst of a severe drought. When my family recently went on a drive to view our state’s famous bluebonnets, I snapped this photo of Lake Buchanan. When full, it holds 875,588 acre-feet of water to supply the region. That white “T” you can see is a dock, the only blue surrounding it from the aforementioned flowers.

“People just don’t have good information on water,” McCracken said. His group is working to change that by creating the world’s largest research data base on energy use, but then the challenge he said is “how do you get all that data and convert it into useful information, delivered in an easy, mobile format?”

When they started the project they were in uncharted territory, but turned to Dell technology to create their initial homegrown SQL database. Two years ago, Dell joined the industry advisory council of Pecan Street to help them expand their work in energy big data and build on the Dell Smart Grid Data Management Solution.

“By this time next year, our University Municipal Water Consortium will be managing more customer water use data each month than all Texas water utilities combined,” McCraken noted. “And we will be doing it all on Dell systems!”

Pecan Street’s network of “citizen scientists” who have a low-watt sensor installed in their circuit panel, or data pulled from the cloud through their utility, are already contributing to first-of-its-kind energy use research. McCracken spoke about how it has led to an understanding of things like the optimum direction for solar panels to face, but that challenges remain in places like Hawaii where more home solar power is generated than can be put back into the grid.

That’s where the edge computing comes in and where Dell is again looking to help. By building gateways that allow sensors to parse the data at the edge of the network, partnering with customers on solutions in our Internet of Things lab, and participating in the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) that sets standards for connecting a multitude of household gadgets and appliances, we expand our Legacy of Good by helping our customers create their own.