Navigating Data Soup in the Aerospace Industry

Francine Gemperle, Director of Human Sciences, MAYA Design and David Bishop, Chief Researcher and Human Scientist, MAYA Design
Francine Gemperle, Director of Human Sciences, MAYA Design

Francine Gemperle, Director of Human Sciences, MAYA Design

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is defined as a network of physical objects embedded with sensors, software and connectivity. It’s also considered an age when the number of devices on the internet exceeds the number of humans. By that measure we already have an internet of things today; but there are expected to be between 25 and 50 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020 (versus fewer than 10 billion people). But we’re not ready. It is not yet easy (or possible, in many cases) for humans to understand, leverage or act upon the trillions of bits of data that will inevitably be upon us. The “things” in the IoT are indiscriminately throwing data onto the internet, and its piling up unused.

Data Soup

Commercial aircrafts are arguably the most sensor-rich environments existing today. The aircraft itself is outfitted with thousands of sensors that make safe flight possible as part of an avionics system that includes communications, navigation, monitoring, flight-control, collision-avoidance, weather, and aircraft management. Additionally, hundreds of humans (passengers and crew) carry their own suite of sensors. These include computers, smartphones, portable games and wearable health monitoring devices. The quantity of data on, in, with and around a plane is staggering. Today much of that data is stored somewhere - maybe on the plane, maybe off - or transmitted someplace in between. However, little of that information is interconnected or unified, and the presentation for human consumption and decision making is limited. There is almost no synthesis happening–to identify insights at the intersections of disparate data sources. For the IoT to provide value for people, we’ll need to find ways to act upon all that data - ostensibly to improve the human condition. Let’s imagine that all the sensors on the aircraft are networked and we can look at all that data. Every sensor on the exterior and interior of the plane (flight deck, galley, cabin, avionics, smartphone, portable game and wearable technology) is collecting and transmitting information wirelessly into a soup of the data that surrounds this flight.

Making Sense Out of Soup

CIOs and CTOs everywhere are working to understand that data soup and to provide storage and access to it. But without a purpose, it’s a large daunting task where it would be easy to overspend and under-deliver. IoT becomes more interesting (and fun!) when the data can be synthesized to derive useful insights, and then rendered so that people can get real-time value from it. There is an approach that every CIO should have in their back pocket for IOT-an architectural approach coupled with Human-Centred Design (HCD).

Information Architecture

When taking an architectural –or information-centric–approach, strip away anything that isn’t information and create a fundamental architectural model of the information space. This exposes the basic concepts in the domain, not at the particular software or hardware solution. These concepts-things like weight, airspeed and temperature are not “owned” by any of the people, corporations or computers they are the basic facts we all share. This foundation serves as a backdrop to look at what information can do for people.

Human-Centered Design

HCD can help determine how to derive value from all that sensor data for people. HCD is an approach to problem solving that focuses on the behaviors, wants and needs of users in order to create solutions. The practice requires frequent user engagements, interdisciplinary collaboration and rapidly testing ideas.David Bishop, Chief Researcher and Human Scientist, MAYA Design

HCD has been around for a long time, and no doubt most products you use today were developed this way. But for an IoT application we also need to take an information-centric approach to the idea generation. Determining what we do with the data can’t simply be based on what users ask for–because they might not know yet what is possible. For an IoT application, user insight must be balanced with an understanding of the information. With this approach, technology becomes secondary as the information is prepared, structured and unified; making it easy to access, explore and navigate. To “pre-organize” it so it can be put to use. This allows users to make and test hypotheses and to take action based on facts.

It allows us to build systems that leverage both the skills of humans (good at making judgments) and computers (good at making calculations).

“IoT becomes more interesting when the data can be synthesized to derive useful insights, and then rendered so that people can get real-time value from it”

Using Data to Improve Experiences

Back to the data soup in an airplane. Consider a flight attendant in the kitchen doing prep work. What information could be available on the aircraft to help make his job easier? Look first at the sensors and data creating an information model. Then start asking questions about user experience. What might help the flight attendant succeed, make the passengers’ and pilot’s experience better, optimize efficiency and ease transitions?

● What if food service was timed to arrive after the last threat of turbulence?

● What if the dehydrated man in 13c was given water first?

● What if the sleeping woman in 23a put in a request to not be awoken for food?

● What if the attendant knew which rows need language translation?

● What if the attendant could order ahead from the re-supply truck?

● How might we never have extra, or run out of, food and drink?

The aerospace industry is rich with sensor data and networking capabilities. What’s needed is a focus on people and information to determine exactly what can be done with the data soup.

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