Photos: From Big Bang physics to F1 racing - how analytics is shaping the world's decisions

Five unusual data crunchers
By Nick Heath, Contributor
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Five unusual data crunchers

Today analytics has broken free of the corporation and is shaping everything from nuclear physics to Formula One racing.

Here silicon.com takes a look at some of the more unusual organisations where analytics is making a difference.

World Health Organisation

The World Health Organisation (WHO) helps countries predict and prepare for disease outbreaks by gathering and analysing information on conditions affecting health across the globe.

WHO staff work with officials around the world to collect information relevant to infectious outbreaks, including where and when disease occurs and data on a country's level of healthcare provision, wealth, urbanisation, terrain, climate and other details.

"We try to measure what are the different factors that will influence the health of a population, whether it is their environment or their income level," said Dr Najeeb Al-Shorbaji, the WHO's director of knowledge management and sharing.

"All of these help us to understand better the health situation and in which direction a country is going."

The data gathered by the WHO is fed into around 100 different databases which hold information on different types of diseases and the conditions associated with them.

The databases are then used to compile a central database of global trends in disease outbreaks, mortality rates and standards of healthcare called Whosis (WHO Statistical Information System), which is published annually.

Using a geographical information system (GIS), the WHO can also overlay public health data from Whosis and other sources on maps, to find links between potential health problems and the conditions on the ground, such as temperature, soil elevation or patterns of land use.

As a result, the GIS means the WHO can detect areas at risk of a disease outbreak and advise countries on what preventative measures need to be taken.

"Our intelligence might inform a country that they will need to prepare a vaccine or spraying of chemicals to reduce numbers of mosquitoes," said Dr Al-Shorbaji.

"Making this information available in a timely fashion is one of our major tasks."

Photo credit: kat m research via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence

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Business Intelligence is essential for physicists at Cern to pick out useful information from the 15 petabytes of data generated every time it fires up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator.

The nuclear research laboratory on the Swiss-French border is aiming to find out how the universe works and what it's made of by colliding protons against each other at 99 per cent the speed of light. The energies generated when particles collide within the LHC are equivalent to those fractions of a second after the Big Bang, and physicists hope these conditions will offer a glimpse at the Higgs Boson, a particle thought to give mass to the universe.

The four detectors within Cern's particle accelerator - each looking for different particles and energy signatures - have built-in electronics and attached computer centres that analyse and throw away the bulk of the data they collect.

Years of data from collisions within previous particle accelerators at Cern allow the sensors to judge what parts of the data from LHC collisions will not yield interesting or new observations, and therefore be discarded.

The remaining useful data is analysed onsite within the Cern Computer Centre and by machines in the LHC Computing Grid, a global network of more than 100,000 processors, in the hope of finding out more about how the universe operates.

Photo credit: Cern

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UK football fixtures

It may seem as haphazard as the British summer sunshine but the scheduling of UK football fixtures is a complex process that takes weeks of work to complete.

Ensuring that football matches are timed to go off without a hitch requires analysing vast amounts of information from football clubs, police and governing bodies, such as Uefa and Fifa.

Fixture compiler Glenn Thompson, a technical architect at IT services company Atos Origin, sets the dates for games for teams in about 10 different football leagues across England and Scotland, including the English Premier League.

Drawing up the list requires juggling a muddle of competing demands from the football clubs - with certain teams paired to ensure they play home and away fixtures at different times. These pairs are often local clubs, with the arrangement helping to avoid placing additional stress on road and rail links or splitting attendance between clubs.

Other factors such as policing cover have to be considered, to make sure matches don't clash with other major public events taking place locally.

On top of that there are the rules and guidelines set by football's governing bodies, with no club allowed to play more than two home games consecutively and the need to avoid scheduling away games either side of an FA Cup fixture.

Once all of this information has been gathered Thompson begins matching the blocks of dates during which home and away matches can take place.

The information is fed into a proprietary software package to produce a list of match dates, which are then manually tweaked and fed back into the computer several times to refine the results.

Thompson said the process gets very intensive culminating in two "60-hour weeks" of meetings and crunching through information.

"The whole of the fixtures does not get any easier - the number of dates available for fixtures gets less and less due to European competitions taking up more dates in the calendar."

Photo credit: spacepleb via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence

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McLaren Formula One racing team

Formula One racing team McLaren collects more than 1GB of data during an average Grand Prix race to help it refine its cars in the hunt for F1 glory.

As the drivers race around the track at 200mph, a total of 100 sensors on the car are collecting data that is transmitted wirelessly from an engine control unit (ECU) to laptops used by trackside support crews.

The data being collected includes the condition of the track, ambient temperatures, engine conditions, suspension settings, tyre pressure and other variables. Data from the sensors is relayed to a data server, which then feeds it to laptops used by the support crews to help monitor the health of the racing car. On large racing teams there can be more than 30 support team members studying ECU data on their laptops during a race, with one set of engineers and technicians studying transmission feeds, while others analyse telemetry data from the engine, suspension, and other systems.

The data is also copied to McLaren's Atlas database, which runs on Microsoft SQL Server 2008. It provides fast access to historic data, be it from previous races, test lab simulations or the previous lap run, as well metadata on the race or test.

Having instant access to this information guides trackside crews during the race and allows them to make better decisions on whether they should be changing a suspension setting, using a different type of tyre or changing a gearbox.

The ECU information can also be paired with other data to study patterns and look at the type of car components that previously performed well on a certain track or in certain weather conditions. For example, a trackside team preparing suspension calibrations could enter the name of the track to access all the data streams that collected during previous races at the venue.

Photo credit: Jaffa The Cake via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence

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US Army

The US military is improving medical treatment for soldiers evacuated from the battlefield using a tracking system.

The Trac2es system, developed by the United States Transportation Command (USTranscom) and BI company Information Builders, has helped track the movements and care of 73,000 soldiers from the frontline to hospital during US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The system gathers information on patients' whereabouts and welfare at each stage of their care, including data on where the patient has been transferred to, their fitness level as determined by doctors, timings and destinations of flights transporting the patient and more.

USTranscom then uses the system to generate reports on the number of patients, their movements, number of missions and associated costs.

Users can also create detailed reports to monitor the status of patients from the beginning of transport from the battlefield to the outcome of treatment to help inform and develop future treatment strategies.

Photo credit: Army.mil via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence

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