If you're drowning in big data, learn to focus, prioritize and discard

Many process control operators, engineers and managers are already experts, we just need to use the skills we already have in new ways.

By Jim Montague

Weary, young parents trying to get babies to sleep sometimes find that taking them to the mall or other crowded places will flood the infants with so much sensory input that they'll inevitably nod off. Whew! I know it worked for me—meaning I got my then-baby daughters to sleep. I don't know what they did to me, but I think an early-1960s, pink-colored tranquilizer was involved.

Anyway, my point is anyone deluged with tidal waves of visual, aural and other information pretty much can't avoid glazing over pretty quickly. For many of us, it only takes a few minutes, especially as we get older. Certainly, short attention spans and lacking mental capacity are often to blame. However, it must be acknowledged that the sheer volume of input coming in from all sides at all times of day is very hard to take in.

Way back when I was a newspaper reporter, it was well known by experienced parties on all sides that not giving out police reports, public records and other information would focus our concentration—precisely because that input was scarce. However, giving out documents and other data freely, even if it wasn't useful, was the perfect way to lull reporters to sleep as well.

These days, many writers and editors covering the process control industry and many other technical fields—not to mention the engineers, system integrators, operators and managers working in them—feel like they're paddling frantically on a heaving tsunami of technical advances and aftershocks. Can you have an earthquake during a flood? Oh, right. See above.

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Of course, this is due to all the faster, cheaper and more powerful microprocessors, software, Ethernet and wireless networks that are gaining critical mass, and pushing greater portions of hardware devices and hardwired applications onto HMIs, fieldbuses, the Internet of whatever, virtualization, clouds and other forms of digitalization—all to be subscriber-based no doubt.

We all knew these trains were barreling in head on, we all heard the whistles, but it's still a shock when they hit. Shoot, I can barely keep up with the lingo and concepts I'm supposed to describe. If I actually had to implement and maintain some of the devices and systems I cover, well, let's just say I'd be looking around for the X-Acto knife I used 20 years ago to manually lay out waxed, "cold-type" text columns onto paper forms.

I often tell people I'm "keeping my head above water," and by that I mean "clawing my way up to the surface many feet above." For example, I interviewed more than 30 sources for this month's cover article on cybersecurity, and I know right now that there are at least half-dozen interesting technologies and orgnizations that I didn't even have to time to check out. I heard the name, but I couldn't tell you what AMQP is if you tortured me.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy covering the process control beat. I love the great interviews and exciting user groups, and all the expert sources brimming with enthusiasm and specific experiences and advice that can help Control readers do their jobs better. (By the way, thanks to everyone this year—and every year—who kindly provide me with all this "news we can use.") It's just difficult to process all these changes.

So what to do? How can I keep this and other former babies awake and aware?

Well, the editorial field has some advice. I and others have always had to crystallize volumes of information down into headlines, captions, bullet points and other synopses for busy readers who only have a few seconds to spare. That's why it's called editing. So, just like emergency room doctors and nurses triaging multiple patients by the severity of their injures, it's important to focus briefly on what's important, prioritize incoming data based on what you plan to do with it, and handle the most critical items first. I find a couple deep breaths are big help.

Many process control operators, engineers and managers are already experts at this anyway, at least the ones who've undertaken alarm rationalization projects recently. Similar to many initially unfamiliar tasks, we just need to use the skills we already have in new ways.

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