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Building a Road for Big Data

March 7, 2013

Our societies’ progress demands that periodically we commit to infrastructure projects that create the conditions for innovation and delivering value.

Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales in Australia, realized in 1814 that new sources of fresh water and agricultural land were critical to the survival and development of the colony. With the Pacific Ocean to its east, the settlement was hemmed to its north, west and south by the seeming impenetrable mountains of the Great Dividing Range.

CoxsRoadplaque.jpgThe colony’s future depended on building a road west, up and over the Blue Mountains. The Governor accepted a voluntary offer from William Cox to supervise and direct a working party of five free men, 28 convicts and eight soldier guards. This team, nurtured by Cox who fed the men beef and vegetables grown on his farm, completed 101 miles of road in just six months, with no significant injury or loss of life. Their efforts opened the Central Tablelands to agriculture, delivered resources necessary to a struggling colony’s future, and created opportunities for untold numbers of migrants. Governor Macquarie rewarded Cox with 2000 acres of arable land and granted freedom to the heroic convict road builders.

Australia’s Federal Government is building a 21st Century version of Cox’s road. The National Broadband Network (NBN) brings high speed connectivity to every home and business across a vast continent. To view this undertaking as merely increasing the speed of our current online activities takes too little account of opportunities we create once data moves freely and in real-time across a nation.

Alert to the NBN’s potential, Tasmanians have adopted a public / private sector collaborative approach to create value for the State’s agricultural industry and its wider communities. The Sensing Tasmania (SenseT) project brings together education (UTAS and University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society), government (Tasmanian State and Australian Federal, through the CSIRO) and industry (Aurora Energy, IBM, National ICT Australia) to deploy and connect a State-wide network of environmental sensors. This $42 million project combines historical and spatial data - collected by government and utility companies - with real-time data collected by environmental sensors, and makes this information available to us, the community. Some applications are immediately apparent – for example, farmers will segment large growing areas to deliver irrigation and fertilisers to only those areas of crops that will benefit from enrichment with these scarce resources. The Human Interface Technology Laboratory Australia working in conjunction with CSIRO have developed Magic Map Tasmania to “improve the way we view and understand environmental sensor data through the use of Augmented Reality (AR) interface technology”.

In 1821 Lachlan Macquarie resigned as the Governor of New South Wales and returned to Britain, where he died in 1824. Following a prosperous 25 years farming on fertile plains near Bathurst, Cox died in 1837. It is unlikely either of these men ever knew William Tom, who arrived in Sydney in 1823 and took the road over the Blue Mountains to settle on a property. In 1851, while working a creek with his friend John Lister, Tom found gold – a discovery that created an immediate gold rush, and laid the economic foundation of a new nation.

The NBN and big data projects such as SenseT create immediate value. As important are new generations of reporting and predictive applications envisaged by individuals, government and industry to find gold among massive, publicly accessible data.

What parallels can you make between today's efforts around big data analytics and the development of "modern society" from yesteryear? Leave us a comment with your thoughts.