Big data talk takes center stage at NFPA General Session

Blog Post created by jesseroman Employee on Jun 4, 2017

Erin Baumgartner of MIT's Senseable City Lab speaking Sunday at the NFPA Conference & Expo General Session in Boston. 


As billions of Internet-connected devices from cell phones to sensors flood our world with data, the question “what are we supposed to do with it all?” keeps all sorts of really smart people across the globe very busy. Sunday, two of those people shared their answers to that all-important question at the 2017 NFPA Conference & Expo General Session in Boston, Massachusetts.


Keynote speakers Erin Baumgartner, assistant director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, and Tom Koulopoulos, CEO and founder of the Delphi Group, came at the question in complementary ways. Baumgartner, who’s lab comes up with innovative ways to use data to make cities “smarter, safer, greener and more pleasurable to live in,” she said, shared some mind-boggling examples of the types of insights big data can unlock in the real world. Koulopoulos, who spoke next, talked of what needs to happen in order to integrate the use of these powerful data insights and technologies into our everyday lives.


Watch Erin Baumgartner's keynote presentation at the 2017 NFPA Conference & Expo


“There has been a global boom of growth in the stuff that talks to the Internet,” said Baumgartner, citing a Cisco figure that by 2020 there will be 30 billion connected devices worldwide. “That represents an enormous challenge, but also huge opportunities. … This is the data we like to swim around in to figure out how our cities can be better.”


Her lab at MIT embedded sensors to track thousands of pieces of trash to find out where it goes, and found huge inefficiencies; mapped millions of taxi rides in New York City and elsewhere, finding that 90 percent of rides are shareable with minimal disruption to passengers; and has even designed sewer robots to dig around under the streets of Cambridge, Mass. to take readings that may be able to track public health trends.


While Baumgartner’s presentation zeroed in on specific examples of big data’s tantalizing possibilities, Koulopoulos’s talk took a big picture view of how this global movement may be integrated into solutions for the real world.



Tom Koulopoulos, CEO and Founder of the Delphi Group, speaks at the 2017 NFPA Conference & Expo General Session in Boston on Sunday.


Successful innovations change human behavior over time and seamlessly integrate into people’s lives, Koulopoulos said, citing video games, social media, and smartphones as examples. Big data solutions for the fire service and fire protection professionals will have to have a similar evolution, he argued.


“All of these devices cannot be layered onto what is already a difficult job,” he said. “You need to ask the question: does this simplify the task? We cannot feed all of this information to firefighters or we’ll overwhelm them, not make things easier.”


The solution is to funnel more complex data up to some other system that simplifies it to the most important small, usable bites that can then be fed to the end user.


“All progress is complex before it’s simple,” he said. “The task is not technology, it is fundamentally changing behavior. I hope you’re up to it.”