Both around the world and in Australia, the notion that comfortable environments within schools help to facilitate maximum student outcomes is well appreciated and understood.

Yet in one mapping exercise of a school campus in San Jose, a range of ‘hot spots’ containing five to six times greater particulate matter were discovered in and around idle vehicles. Within classrooms, measures of carbon dioxide taken at another school within the US over a one-week period revealed that students were being forced to study in environments which saw CO2 concentration levels jump up to 3,500 parts per million on several occasions – roughly five times levels which are thought to impede cognitive function.

Armed with information such as this, designers and facility managers are able to better understand the intricacies of the environment within which they are working tailor their solutions accordingly.

Welcome to the world of data analysis as a tool to reveal patterns and trends. Whilst the above example outlined in a presentation given by Aclima chief strategy officer Chris Pyke at the recent Green Building Council of Australia’s GreenCities event in Sydney represented use of data on smaller scale in or around individual buildings, data is also being used for broader applications within the civil space.

In the United Kingdom, a group known as the Flood Network have created a system in which sensors installed in local streams, waterways, culverts, rivers and ditches connect via the Internet of Things and send personalised flood warnings to local residents. In another UK example, the City of Bristol has created a digital test bed from which it is hoping to enable its citizens to utilise real-time information from data sensors and smart city technology to respond to everyday events including collection, waste management, entertainment events, energy supply and even  e-democracy.

Back home in Sydney, a trial phase underway for the Technology for Urban Liveability Project is deploying a network of environmental sensors across the inner parts of the city that will measure things such as noxious gases, fine particles, temperature and noise. As well as providing individuals with real-time data about their immediate environment, the project aims to empower decision makers with better information from which to improve design, planning and policy decisions as well as to enable the creation of location specific applications with commercial value for developers, the property market, insurance, human resources, public services and healthcare.

Another interesting area is smart transport systems. In Melbourne, a collaboration of 17 domestic and international partners have created a test bed which is being fitted with thousands of sensors to generate real-time data which will empower users to make optimum decisions for their journey across multiple transport routes and modes and will empower traffic network managers and transport planners to better route vehicles and public transport nodes around the network so as to maximise outcomes across the network.

Big data will also facilitate technologies such as ride sharing and autonomous vehicles, which AECOM chief information officer Collette Munro says could reduce the number of cars on the road by 2036 by about 91,000.

Naturally, there are challenges. Apart from issues relating to security and the interoperability of different data sources, these include questions surrounding who owns the data and fears about data being locked away in proprietary systems.

 To resolve the last point, Giant Ideas founder and Meshed director Catherine McManus said Australia should follow England and stratify data into categories of open data, sharing data (made accessible to others on a contractual basis), private data and a fourth category involving data which does not fit within the first three categories. When going into places such as Toowoomba, Sunshine Coast and Ipswich to build public asset networks, McManus says Meshed makes it clear that the communities own the data, and can attach any application they like without needing to pay an access fee in order to utilise this data. In time, she says, we will see a lot more open data.

Pyke says questions about ownership and access are becoming prominent throughout the property sector. As an example, he says that whilst personal wearable devices enable individuals to monitor issues such as their own stress levels, privacy considerations mean that this information is rarely available to landlords or managers of office and retail property even though such information could be used, for instance, to adjust lighting or temperature control.

Australia has an opportunity to embrace big data to drive sustainability outcomes.

Whether or not we are able to capitalise will depend upon our ability to overcome these challenges.