Hello PayPal Mafia. Meet Buildings’ Own Big Data Bosses

Tech Entrepreneurs that formerly worked together at PayPal. Image: Robyn Twomey

Tech Entrepreneurs that formerly worked together at PayPal. Image: Robyn Twomey

I really think we’re living in the single most interesting time that I could have predicted as a computer scientist… [at school] I remember walking across rooms thinking I’m going to spend my entire life perfecting this notion of set math on datasets as big as possible. Whatever the biggest data set I can get my hands on, that’s the one I’m going to work on that day. And it literally played out that way so far. I’m very excited to be living in a world where sensors are just pooping out tons of data all the time. Max Levchin, GigaOm Interview

Max Levchin is renown as a member of the PayPal Mafia, a small circle of tech company founders that once started a company together and then, spurred on by each others’ successes, individually started a string of game-changing companies including YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp, 500 Startups, Tesla etc. It’s hard to argue with such a track record, so… if Max Levchin, declares sensor data to be ‘poop’ – there must be some profound truth to that. While the focus of his latest company doesn’t deal in real-time sensor data streaming from smart buildings, his Paypal peer Elon Musk is helping to steer Solar City which plays in that market. Also Musk’s Tesla electric cars will inevitably go into the parking garages and connect with smart buildings there. That project is ramping up with the announcement of Tesla’s gigafactory in Nevada.

With thousands of sensors and actuators in a modern smart building spewing data, the allure is too much to pass up for those that have a knack for turning a fascination with artificial intelligence and data science into a hot start-up. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) just upped the temptation by opening a learning lab specifically for the study of intelligent agents in the operation of HVAC equipment and other building systems.

However, back to the ‘poop’ – there is some dirty work to consider before counting the money. Marti Ogram, a Founder of RiptideIO comments in a recent blog post – Data Janitor Work: What No One Tells You About : “The big barrier to analyzing data is getting clean, workable data.” The job of prepping data for a building systems integration project can be a big mess, due to proprietary protocols, a mix of interconnection mechanisms, and varying use cases. Founded by veterans of Cisco Systems Smart+ Connected Buildings Group, RiptideIO differentiates its products and services by its commitment to keeping its BAS integrations open, so that its building operator customers have flexibility and can avoid unnecessary complexity and costs.

In this context, the words ‘clean’ and ‘open’ are almost synonymous. Data experts from the Building Automation industry have collaborated in open-source fashion over the last decades on standardization efforts to get away from the ‘poop’ and make it possible to operate on data at a higher level. These efforts include the BACnet standard and, more recently, Project Haystack for consistent tagging of building information. So, there is a foundation to build upon when striving to derive some insight and action from all the new data streaming from sensors.

According to John Petze, Partner at SkyFoundry and one of the initiating forces of the Haystack Open Source project, “Haystack data modeling techniques can be used with virtually any type of system data. Project Haystack is not tied to any vendor, or communication protocol. It can be used with legacy system data and with more modern systems that allow tags to be defined in the end device. It can also be used with file data – like csv files, and Excel files.”

In Paypal-Mafioso style, Petze and others in the open building data movement met and worked together first, usually at big automation and controls companies that pushed their own proprietary protocols. They saw first hand how this tendency to protect markets by walling up data held back innovation in building automation software. So that’s where they focused their Digital Disruption efforts. Those walls are being battered now, in no small part by Petze’s current company SkyFoundry and others like RiptideIO.

SkyFoundry’s SkySpark analytics solution has seen rapid adoption in the intelligent buildings market, and it has made inroads into the wider Internet of Things (IoT) market. No one that has worked in the building controls industry wants to see new data silos springing up around vendor-specific data communication approaches – even if those vendors have names like Google and Apple, rather than the previous generation’s usual suspects. As Ken Sinclair, editor of automatedbuildings.com says “To enable more streamlined communications of data between systems and software applications we need to guide the industry to use the evolving standards. … I am sure that no client wants to enter into a service contract to maintain data flow of a proprietary brew of IT standards, yet that is where they are heading.”

So, “Welcome to our world, Paypal Mafia!” – but, let’s keep the competition open and clean.

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