3 Keys to Effective Real-Time Data Visualization

Everybody appreciates the value of a good picture. Each one says a thousand words, after all, or so the saying goes. If we really dig in to this metaphor, we’d probably admit that some pictures say substantially more than that – while others probably come in well under a dozen (just look at a random Facebook wall for some examples).

Ours has become a very visual culture, and one occupying a place in time defined by an overwhelming abundance of information all around us. Considering these two facts, it is not at all surprising that we see such an increased interest in data visualization – that is to say the process of placing a particular, specific set of data points in a highly visual context that allows it to be quickly consumed and analyzed.

It’s not a new concept; data has been visualized in pictures for centuries. A map is a type of data visualization, for instance, as are the many charts and graphs that have been used since the end of the 18th Century. What is new is the massive quantity of data available to nearly everyone, and the wide array of tools that can be used to create compelling visualizations. Think about the cool infographic you saw the other day. Was it created painstakingly over several days of carefully reviewing ethnographic data compiled by a dogged scientist over the course of his career? Maybe, but probably not. It was more likely created by some marketing department somewhere (not that there’s anything wrong with that) using somebody else’s data and somebody else’s visualization tools.

The purpose of this post, though, is not to discuss the merits of data visualization in general, but rather the specific subset of data visualization that deals with real-time data. This is a completely separate species of data visualization and should be treated as such.

Real-time data visualization refers to visualization of data that is continuously updated as new data is generated by connected devices or people. This is the type of data that is used to make real-time decisions and, when done correctly, can truly transform business processes.

There are a number of important factors to consider when attempting to visualize data in real time, but we will focus on three simple and obvious keys: clarity, consistency, and feedback.

 

Clarity

Real-Time graphics should emphasize pertinent information and use design principles that promote ease-of-use and accessibility above aesthetics. Things like size, color and brightness can be used to distinguish primary details from secondary and tertiary details. Special graphics can be created to emphasize different information under different conditions (i.e. a special set of graphics to be used when a certain alarm is triggered).

 

Hierarchical Data
Hierarchical Data Makes its Relevance Obvious

Clear visualizations provide actionable information at a glance, and clearly show the current process state and conditions. Alarms and indicators of abnormal conditions are prominent and impossible to ignore.

Clarity encompasses both content and context.

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Contextual Controls Allow You to Assess Current Conditions at a Glance

 

Consistency

Consistent visualizations are standardized and consistently formatted. Interaction requires a minimum of keystrokes or pointer manipulations.

Shapes, colors, and layouts should be used consistently through all screens. If the color red is used in one place to designate an abnormally high value on one screen, that same color red should be used to indicate all abnormally high values of the same type on all screens. If navigation buttons are on the left side of one screen, they should be on the left side of all screens. A consistent visualization system is arranged in a logical, hierarchical manner, allowing operators to visualize both a general overview of the system as well as more detailed information on different components as needed. Navigation and interaction of any type should be as easy and intuitive as possible.

Consistency is closely related to clarity.

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Color is a Great Way to Distinguish One Property from Another, As Long As it Is Consistently Applied.

 

Feedback

An operator should be fully confident that the choices they make are having the desired effect. Screens should be designed in a way that provides information, putting relevant data in the proper context. Also, important actions that carry significant consequences should have confirmation mechanisms to ensure that they are not activated inadvertently.

Controls will function consistently in all situations. If something is not working as it should, that fact should be immediately obvious and undeniable. In a well-designed system, design principles are employed to reduce user fatigue.

There are obviously many other important factors to consider when real developing a real-time visualization system. Anyone who wants to dig deeper is encouraged to read this free whitepaper on the subject:

Click here to read it

3 Reasons You Should Consider Giving Your Process Operators Mobile Devices

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That’s right. It’s time to own up to the fact that the majority of us are using phones and tablets to do business everyday. We buy, sell, trade, learn, teach, and all manner of horrible and wonderful things that we have always done (no, not everyone does horrible things, but don’t act like the things you do are always so wonderful either) all with the aid of portable devices that allow us to move freely about our lives without being tethered to a desk chair.

Why, then, is it so difficult for some people to recognize that our industrial process operators and technicians – who are so often stuck behind a stationary HMI or calling from the field to speak with someone who is – would be far better equipped to do their jobs if only they were afforded the same conveniences they afford themselves in their lives outside of work.

I know there are concerns about security – about opening some digital wormhole through which all sorts of nefarious activity could be invited. There are concerns about ill-intentioned deviants having potential access to sensitive process data – which is not only proprietary, but often essential to our infrastrucure – as well there should be. But it’s not like these potential problems didn’t exist before mobile devices, and while some concerns are certainly valid, mobile devices provide a number of key benefits and opportunities that cannot be ignored:

 

  • For Remote Management of Disparate Assets
    This one seems pretty obvious, but imagine the amount of time that could be saved by not having to manually inspect field equipment or call back to the control station every time there is a simple question.
  • For Constant Access to a Portable Media Viewer
    How can you ensure that operators and techs always have access to the latest work masters, training videos, etc.? Upload or edit a document and make your changes instantly available to all relevant perties – regradless of where they are or what they’re doing.
  • For Instant access to Forms and Form Data
    Create Purchase Orders or close Work Requests from anywhere. Assign new owners or upload a picture you just snapped and attach it to a Job. The possibilities are nearly unlimited.

 

Sure, there are only three benfits listed here, but without much thought I’m sure you could think of a few more. Let me know in the comments below.

And for some additional food for for thought, check out this white paper on “The Benefits of Mobile HMIs” and tell me I’m not absolutely right about this:

Download White Paper


What Should We Expect From the ‘Smart Cities’ of Tomorrow?

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There are an awful lot of ‘smart’ things these days. Even many things that were previously ‘dumb’ are becoming ‘smart’ through the addition of sensors and decision logic. From street lamps to subways and everything in between, the very towns and cities we inhabit are joining the trend.

As cities like Seoul and Vienna (among many) are using technology to revamp their communication infrastructure and resource distribution, we all have an opportunity to learn some things about what we can expect when the ‘smart’ label gets slapped onto the towns and cities we call home.

So, what makes a city smart?

Unfortunately, the term ‘smart’ applies only to the city itself and not its citizens. A global tour of the world’s smartest cities is not likely to be any more personally enlightening than a stroll through any of our regular old ‘dumb’ cities. However, this global tour would likely reveal some of the common traits that these smart cities share, and shed some light on how and where resources are being applied to make these cities smarter.

A city is generally considered smart when it distinguishes itself from other cities in terms of its technology, urban planning, environment, and/or overall management.

Smart cities are expected to be cleaner, safer, and more efficient than their dumb brethren. This is accomplished primarily through the application of new technologies, but also frequently requires entirely new models for organization and management.

Some of the more prominent features of today’s smart cities include:

  • Green Buildings: Smart cities tend to erect new buildings (or enforce laws requiring others to erect buildings) that have the least possible environmental impact – both during construction and operation. Older buildings can be retrofit with more efficient appliances and sensors to help control lighting and temperature.
  • Smart Mobility and Transport: Bike-sharing programs, smart traffic lights, sensor-based parking availability detection, and real-time communication about public transportation are some of the hallmarks of a smart city.
  • More Efficient Utilities: In addition to employing alternative energy sources like solar and wind, smart cities are frequently more inclined to employ smart grid technology and use sensors to manage the distribution of water and reduce waste.
  • More Engaged Citizens: Another common trait of smart cities is a pronounced effort to be more responsive to the needs of their human resources. Whether through smart street lights, cleaner streets, social media involvement, digital signage, and many other initiatives, smart cities are putting more effort into involving citizens in the city’s governance.

Of course, these are just a few of the many ways that cities are remaking themselves as smart cities. In some cases – in cities like Santiago and Tokyo – entire smart communities are being developed according to all of these principles and more.

Since a real economic incentive can be attached to the idea of reduced waste and greater energy efficiency, it is very likely that this trend will continue well into the 21st century, until when eventually the smart cities of today will be referred to as simply “cities”.
Virtualville, USA

Tomorrow’s smart cities are going to require new tools to consolidate, organize, and analyze the voluminous data coming in from the city’s systems. New organizational models must be established and new technology must be deployed.

Remote monitoring and management systems like the one modeled in B-Scada’s Virtualville will become indispensable tools to city administrators, allowing management personnel a real-time view into any of the city’s systems from anywhere at any time. It also provides a means of automating certain processes according to particular rules.

To learn more about B-Scada’s Smart City platform, visit: http://votplatform.com.

How To Improve Any Business Process

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If you are responsible for managing a business or organization of any type, you have undoubtedly sought out opportunities to make things run more smoothly and efficiently. It’s only natural. This means that responsible owners and managers are continually looking for opportunites to optimize their business processes.

How about some free advice?

First of all, let’s be clear about what it is we’re referring to when we use the term ‘business process’. In short, a business process is defined as a collection of linked tasks which can find their end in the delivery of a service or product to a client. It has also been defined as a set of activities and tasks that – once completed – will accomplish an organizational goal.

Any business (regardless of how poorly it may be run) employs some type of business process. Some are clearly better than others.

What we refer to as Business Process Management (BPM) can be defined as the set of techniques employed to map the flow of information and communication between various business assets and departments, identify opportunities for improvement, and establish and enforce rules to optimize the process moving forward. These techniques can (and should) be employed continually.

A BPM system can provide any company with several measurable benefits:

  • The ability to identify otherwise unknown inefficiencies
  • Reduced downtime and cost associated with wasted time and material
  • The ability to connect processes over multiple facilities and or operations
  • Automation of repeated and/or predictable tasks
  • Establishment of a program for continual improvement

These benefits are very attainable. Provided you use the right tools and follow a simple procedure, anyone can realize the improved efficiency and reduced waste that BPM systems provide. And what is the correct procedure? In very simple terms:

  1. Analyze Current Processes
    Create a business process map to paint a clear picture of the current flow of information between different business assets. Use this map to uncover inefficiencies and establish a preferred methodology.
  2. Establish and Enforce New Rules
    Define rules for how you would like information to flow, and create workflow tasks to automate tasks or send automatic notifications to people that need to be involved in enforcing the new rules.
  3. Implement, Train, Rinse and Repeat
    Once the new process is clearly defined and automated, ensure that all parties are fully trained and equipped to adhere to these new rules moving forward. You can create custom dashboards to track real-time data, create a centralized knowledge base that is shared and continually updated, and use automated real-time notifications to be sure that everyone is always aware of the current state of the process. Finally, ensure that your new process is fully repeatable and scalable to allow for continual evaluation and improvement.

Seems pretty simple, right? It can be when you combine your innate understanding of your business process with the right tools.

 

**Learn more about some of the data acquisition and visualization technology the empowers Business Process Management at http://scada.com

Is That SCADA or IoT?

Clearly, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) and IoT (Internet of Things) are very different things, right? We typically don’t create new terms to describe things for which we already have terms, so yes. They are different, but maybe not as far removed from one another as we may think. As revolutionary as the end results may be, the truth is that the IoT is just a new name for a bunch of old ideas. In fact, in some ways the IoT is really just a natural extension and evolution of SCADA. It is SCADA that has burst free from its industrial trappings to embrace entire cities, reaching out over our existing internet infrastructure to spread like a skin over the surface of our planet, bringing people, objects, and systems into an intelligent network of real-time communication and control.

Not entirely unlike a SCADA system – which can include PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), HMI (Human Machine Interface) screens, database servers, large amounts of cables and wires, and some sort of software to bring all of these things together, an IoT system is also composed of several different technologies working together. That is to say you can’t just walk in to the electronics section of your local department store, locate the box labelled “IoT” and carry it up to the counter to check out.

It also means that your IoT solution may not resemble your neighbor’s IoT solution. It may be composed of different parts performing different tasks. There is no such a thing as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ IoT solution. There are, however, some common characteristics that IoT solutions will share:

  • Data Access
    It’s obvious, but there has to be a way to get to the data we want to work with (i.e. sensors).
  • Communication
    We have to get the data from where it is to where we are using it – preferably along with the data from our other ‘things’.
  • Data Manipulation
    We have to turn that raw data into useful information. Typically, this means it will have to be manipulated in some way. This can be as simple as placing it in the right context or as complex as running it through a sophisticated algorithm.
  • Visualization
    Once we have accessed, shared, and manipulated our data, we have to make it available to the people who will use it. Even if it’s just going from one machine to another (M2M) to update a status or trigger some activity, we still need some kind of window into the process in order to make corrections or to ensure proper operation.

There could be any number of other elements to your IoT system – alarm notifications, workflow, etc. – but these four components are essential and will be recognized from one IoT system to the next. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), these are technologies that all cut their teeth in the world of SCADA.

The IoT is the Next Generation of SCADA

Again, In many ways the IoT is a natural extension and evolution of SCADA. It is SCADA that has grown beyond industry and seeped into our daily lives. The IoT is essentially SCADA plus the new technology that has evolved since SCADA was first devised. Just like how in the late 18th Century, steam power put a hook in all other industrial technology and pulled it forward into a new era, electric power did the same thing a century later. Several decades later, with the advent of microchips and computer technology, once again industry was swept forward into a new era by the gravity of a single revolutionary technology. As we sit here today, well aware of the revolutionary power of what we call the ‘internet’, we are now feeling that gravity once again pulling us toward a new era.

Object Virtualization: Digitizing the World

Object virtualization is the enabling technology behind the IoT (Internet of Things)

We are changing our world. With the advent of new sensing and communication technologies, we are finding ways of making everyday objects more intelligent and connected. As we connect more and more things to one another, however, we are finding a need to democratize the process. We have to make different things the same, or at least equal. We are still trying to answer the Mad Hatter’s famous riddle: How is a raven like a writing desk?

Though Alice’s time in Wonderland may have come and gone, ours is just beginning. While we may not be connecting ravens to writing desks (though nothing would surprise me at this point), we do have a need to connect seemingly unrelated objects in new ways.

One solution to this dilemma is the process of object virtualization. By creating virtual models, or representations, of the things you want to monitor and manage, you are putting ‘things’ on equal footing, creating new opportunities for analysis and task automation.

To understand object virtualization, consider the contact list in your phone. A contact can be thought of as a virtual model of an actual person. It is something like a digital identity. Imagine you have a contact named Mary Smith. Mary has a name, a phone number (or two), an email address, maybe a photo. Mary can have a Facebook profile, a Twitter alias – you can even assign Mary a special ringtone. All of these things combine to create a virtual model of Mary stored in your phone.

Now, to make your model of Mary a bit more intelligent and useful, you could add her date of birth, her hair color, her favorite book, her pet cat’s name, or any number of different properties of Mary. If we slapped a bunch of sensors on Mary, we may know things like her current location, current body temperature, her heart rate, her blood pressure. If this information is communicated to your model in real time, you have an active, living representation of Mary that tells you more about her than she may know herself.

Imagine applying this same process to your house, your car, your toaster, or your favorite pair of socks. Now, maybe you can’t think of a good reason for your socks to talk to your toaster, but they may have a thing or two to share with your washing machine. And maybe your house and your toaster can have a nice conversation about lowering your electric bill. Of course, your things aren’t just talking to your other things. They can talk to other things anywhere. Do you think it might be helpful for your air conditioning system to know something about today’s weather forecast? Or for your car to know about that new road construction on your way to work?

Your virtualized house doesn’t care that it’s a house. It may as well be an elephant or a water balloon. The same is true of your car, your refrigerator, or your lawn sprinklers. Virtual models can share information with other virtual models without regard for where the data is coming from or how it got there. Virtualization can make every “thing” accessible to every other “thing”, and ultimately to you.

**B-Scada’s VoT (Virtualization of Things) Platform allows you to create virtual models using data from multiple and disparate sources, providing a simple platform for creating powerful and intelligent IoT (Internet of Things) applications. Learn more at http://votplatform.com.

Engineering a System of Systems (SoS)

a System of Systems

“Everything affects everything else in one way or another. Whether you are aware of that or not does not change the fact that this is what is happening. That’s why I say a business is a system … any action will reverberate throughout the entire company.”
– John Woods (Work in Progress)

The evolution of an enterprise resembles the evolution of any other type of organism. Processes become more complex as the enterprise grows; job requirements become more compartmentalized. Over time, complex and varied systems are developed or implemented to help personnel perform their very specific sets of tasks. Many enterprises today are composed of many of these separate silos of activity that do not share information with each other – and when they do it is not in real time.

This organizational model has served us well, generally helping to improve operational efficiency, increasing productivity, and providing better tools for people to do their jobs. Now, as we enter the era of connected devices and the IoT (Internet of Things), it is becoming more apparent that these old models that were designed to make things more efficient are actually serving as obstacles to taking the next step.

Before now, these separate silos of activity allowed people to focus more specifically on the task at hand without worrying about any other tasks. Today’s reality is that an enterprise truly operates as more of a continuum. All of these separate systems must work in concert to ensure the health of the organism as a whole.

Imagine your own personal organism. How would your lungs work correctly without information from your circulatory system? And how could your circulatory system deal with injuries without information from your nervous system? Our brains, hearts, lungs, stomachs, kidneys and livers must be in constant communication with one another at all times. And any one of these systems can be impacted at any time by new information pulled in from outside through our senses. A healthy organism is not one where each individual system performs its specific tasks as efficiently as possible. A healthy organism is one in which every system is constantly striving to ensure the greater good of the entire organism.

Many enterprises are discovering today that they need to implement a system of systems.

Implementing a system that encompasses all of your existing systems can increase your capacity for management, analysis, and understanding of underlying business problems and opportunities. Gain real-time insight into how altering just one component of a process can impact all other processes. For instance, witness in real time how a change to a maintenance schedule effects productivity and asset performance. Discover opportunities to reduce energy consumption or create greater coordination between your production schedule and your supply chain.

A system of systems can promote greater high-level situational awareness, increase your capacity for interdepartmental collaboration, and allow for entirely new models of analysis and automation. Imagine the following scenario: a plant floor machine’s throughput drops below what’s expected; immediately, an alarm notification is sent and the machine is automatically shut down for maintenance. Another task is triggered to generate a work order; the work order is automatically assigned to the technician who is closest and best able to perform the work (the technician is notified in real time on his smart phone or tablet). While the maintenance is performed, all of the day’s numbers related to production, profit, warehousing, shipping, etc. are automatically adjusted to accommodate the downtime. Meanwhile, the technician is able to perform the maintenance, test the machine, and update the work order right there on the spot (on his phone, for instance). All other systems are automatically aware of the work order’s completion in real-time and everything is adjusted again accordingly.

Imagine creating custom interfaces for each role in your organization. Depending on an individual’s job responsibilities, he/she could have real-time access to all data necessary to do their jobs – regardless of where that data was generated or where it is stored.

With a little imagination, there is a seemingly endless number of possibilities revealed when all of your data systems and personnel are working in a network of continuous communication. And the best part is that implementing an SoS does not require removing or replacing any of your existing systems. The software application or suite can be installed as a sort of top layer that ties all of your systems together. Keep your SCADA/DCS system. Keep your CMMS, your ERP, and any of the other useful systems in which you have already invested enormous amounts of time and money. They will still provide value. Your SoS is not intended to replace these systems, but to weave them together into a single fabric of continual intelligence and agility.