To address the challenges that we face in today’s world, we need to constantly be innovating. Just think of the tremendous changes we’ve seen in tech since the dawn of the new millennium.

Can you even remember your life before Google, smart phones or video conferencing? All three of these innovations have one common thread in their tech DNA: big data. The same technology that drives the convenience of our own day-to-day lives is now being leveraged in smart cities to enhance traffic flow control, build smarter green energy grids and improve communications within the city.

The smart city concept stemmed from the White House Smart Cities Initiative designed to use a combination of big data and technology to address a wide variety of issues impacting cities across the nation through a $160 million investment.

In the private sector, some of the nation’s biggest companies, including AT&T, Cisco, IBM and Intel, have formed a strategic alliance that will build a smart cities infrastructure in three spotlight cities – Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas. This alliance will work to solve community problems with solutions that build a connected infrastructure including utility meters, street lights and water systems.

A great case study of the Smart Cities initiative is what’s happening in Dallas, home to 21 Fortune 500 companies in the metropolitan area. There, the movement toward becoming a smarter city is being driven by the Dallas Innovation Alliance, a partnership of public officials and private business leaders working to build a smart city model in the West End district that can eventually cover the entire city. The model includes a three-pronged strategy focused on: infrastructure, mobility and connected living.

Dallas is a major city leading the charge with how to leverage big data, and so it was a natural fit for the first city to host the Big Data/Open Data conference led by University of Phoenix College of Information Systems and Technology. The two-day event brought together local public officials, national and local business leaders and higher education to discuss the power of big data and how to handle and analyze it properly so that its full potential can be achieved.

This was the main discussion surrounding the first day of the event, during which representatives of AT&T, Walmart, DirectTV, Bain Global, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a number of other companies discussed how they use big data to build predictive models in business. For example, through the creation of @WalmartLabs, Walmart has developed its own big data tools to mine data and use it to shape the customer experience.

In a keynote speech, Lori Sherer, partner in Bain Global’s San Francisco office, discussed big data and advanced analytics and how they can improve decision making for businesses around the globe, and how that can lead to increased efficiency and profitability, enhanced customer experience and improved competitive performance.

In other keynotes, Dr. Erica Groshen, commissioner of labor statistics at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics highlighted how big data is used to predict the latest market and employment trends, and Joe Hill, chief technologist for analytics at Hewlett Packard Enterprise addressed big data’s use in the technology sector and how this collaboration is leading to better solutions for current problems.

My colleague, Ruth Veloria, executive dean for University of Phoenix School of Business, summed up the sentiments of the conference the best.

“This huge tidal wave of data that is now upon us essentially means that you almost can’t function today in government or business without at least a basic understanding of the power of data, how to harness it, analyze it and draw implications for your role,” Veloria said. “Everyone is going to have to learn how to handle and work with data to be successful in the future.”

Day two of the event featured a virtual data-solving challenge. Teams worked to develop smart city solutions to improve the City of Dallas’ infrastructure.

One of those teams focused on solutions for improving public safety in Dallas. This included developing a Waze-style app where users could report crimes to alert other users. The team also addressed the need for more police officers in Dallas and how citizens can work to improve their safety despite the shortage of law enforcement.

“We’re taking existing statistics and using them to mold and shape ideas, and then taking those ideas to hopefully reduce those (crime) statistics and create new sets of data,” said Wesley Alvarez, partner development manager at EC-Council and a member of the team. “We’re trying to broach these ideas from all different angles to figure out what are the best solutions and how we can make the city safer.”

A second team looked at ways to improve Dallas’ transportation grid. The main problem the team identified was a lack of public transportation, including no subway system and no easy public transportation to sports venues or the airport. The team also pointed out that, according to city maps of bus and train routes, the distance between public transportation options can be blocks or miles, presenting difficulty to access transportation.

The team’s solution was to create a system of electric buses that transport passengers into the city and reach untouched areas, bridging the gap in public transportation. The team also looked at creating a card that can be used on all public transportation to make paying fares on all public transportation easy and convenient.

This data-solving challenge did not go unobserved at the local level. A representative of the Dallas public transportation organization, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), attended the event and expressed interest in the ideas and plans to take them back to the his organization for consideration.

Similar concepts are being developed in smart cities challenges across the nation. In fact, University of Phoenix College of Information Systems and Technology is planning on hosting future conferences.

This drive to develop smart cities is an example of the power big data presents for our future. But to realize its full potential, we must build a pool of talent capable of managing the information and interpreting it correctly. By 2018, the United States alone faces a shortage of more than 1.7 million managers and analysts needed to effectively decipher big data and make the appropriate decisions.

To address this shortage, educators must collaborate with employers so that education and training advance at the same pace as big data technologies and practices to prepare students for the dynamic challenges and opportunities in the industry. This is why University of Phoenix is working in partnership with industry organizations and businesses to develop curriculum that aligns with the skills professionals need to work with big data now and in the future.

Opportunities in big data are limitless and hold great potential. But to fulfill this potential, we must make sure the next generation comprehends the power of big data. If we are successful, then the smart cities movement is just the beginning.

(About the author: Dennis Bonilla is executive dean at the University of Phoenix College of Information Systems & Technology)

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