The Solution for Ubiquitous Problems? Ubiquitous Data*

Andrew Nuttall
CTO and co-founder
July 26, 2021

*It’s a start.

It’s hard to think of many positive outcomes of the global pandemic, but here’s one: a greater understanding of what it means for a problem to be truly global. Watching the story unfold over the past year, chronicled daily with a multitude of statistics, the public has gotten a sustained, birds-eye view into how vast amounts of data—ubiquitous data, gathered from around the world—have bushwhacked the path toward public policy to contain COVID, a vaccine and, hopefully, an eventual return to normal.

The reality is, the most significant problems faced by this generation, my generation, are global: in addition to human health, they include climate change, air quality, agricultural capacity, and sustaining the fragile ecosystems of air, sea and land. While there is no panacea for any of these challenges (just like vaccines do not make COVID immediately disappear), it is apparent that data is the common denominator of any solution to any worldwide problem. Data is the foundation on which multiple global and local initiatives will be developed and stacked upon each other, like interlocking bricks, to build effective solutions.

How do we get the data we need?

The first step to solving any problem is to first gather data to measure it, followed by a second step to act and a third step to observe. With the COVID pandemic, a global infrastructure to measure the problem was, miraculously, already in place: the government public health agencies that are established in every part of the modern world, even in the most nascent of developing countries. 

This vast reporting structure was in place to collect data on new cases, deaths, recoveries and vaccination rates, rolling up the information for consumption by each nation as well as a global authority, the World Health Organization. National, state and local responses to the pandemic have been wildly divergent but, fueled by constant streams of ubiquitous data, these initiatives are slowly building a wall of defense against COVID and future pandemics. We can measure, identify which of the wildly divergent approaches work (and don’t work), and take action.

Climate change, air quality, agricultural capacity and other global-scale environmental problems are as pressing as COVID, but lack the basic infrastructure to accurately measure them. Our generation is tasked with building well-oiled machines for the reporting and sharing of granular environmental data at a global scale, beyond what small groups of powerful countries have established. Reporting and sharing data is the first step to determining causality and taking informed action. 

Where will we get the data, the abundance of raw information, at the granularity that’s required? How can we collect data from millions of points around the globe, cost-effectively? Ubiquity, simplicity and affordability are the tenets we must abide by, to effect the magnitude of change we want so badly. To my mind, cost-effective, satellite-based internet of things (IoT) connectivity is the only way to make the goal of ubiquitous data a reality. 

Rewriting the economics of wide-scale data collection

Gathering data at scale always comes at a price. Imagine the cost of building a global health reporting infrastructure to track COVID, if one weren’t already in place. Imagine the environmental analog, for example, in California, where the electric utility PG&E has over 100,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines. Electric lines felled by high winds are a major ignition point of wildfires that tear through the state each year with increasing ferocity . But monitoring the electric grid with a dense network of sensors based on legacy IoT technology and 3G/4G wireless networks carries too large of a price tag to pass on to consumers.

Finding a solution for ubiquitous data collection inevitably requires a new type of connectivity, a novel combination of 5G and narrowband satellite network communications. This “always-on, everywhere” connectivity instantly provides a global-scale data collection network. 

For example, high-risk electric lines can be fitted cost-effectively with about 20 sensors per mile, transmitting line movement and ignition data every few minutes. In this way, fire-fighting authorities can immediately be alerted of trouble, speeding aid to the site. “Always-on, everywhere” connectivity disrupts the status quo, allowing information to be collected from the depths of California’s forests to Himalayan mountain tops, even in areas not served by 5G networks; narrowband satellite communications kick in where necessary to collect data from sensors, digitizing the earth’s heartbeat.  

Global access to ubiquitous data

Again, gathering data to measure a problem is the first step in solving it. Large-scale problems require a ubiquitous connectivity solution; anything else constitutes a patchwork of technologies that are dependent upon the deployment geography--basically, an operational nightmare. Cost is a second critical consideration. Low-cost, ubiquitous  connectivity is essential, otherwise the long-term economics of data collection don’t pencil out, either.    

As COVID has shown us, there are no easy solutions to global problems. In my lifetime I hope to see definitive answers for climate change, air quality and other challenges that weigh heavily on my generation. But one thing is certain: ubiquitous data collection is the first step. It is the key ingredient of the foundation on which myriad different bricks will be laid, building an impenetrable wall of protection around our earth. 

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