The big opportunity Big Data missed

There is a glaring opportunity that will transform business and it is right in front of us.

In this data crazed world, businesses are locked in a competitive arms race to squeeze more and more value out of data about the consumer. Everything from your personal buying preferences and history to the actual GPS routes you travelled today is not only known, but for sale. The sophistication is stunning and frightening when you consider the potential danger all that personally identifiable information poses to each and every one of us.

Meanwhile, there is a place where “big data” has barely scratched the surface. It is a huge opportunity for forward-thinking people and businesses. And no Big Brother is required – or frankly wanted.


Let me explain.

People are typically the biggest expense for any large company. Buildings – the world’s largest asset class – are usually a company’s second biggest expense.

So how is it that we have little to no data about how a company’s biggest expense interacts with its second biggest expense? Surely some information would help drive the enormous decisions the Fortune 1000 makes every day about people and real estate.

Unconvinced that this is a problem? Well, take a look at the status quo in real estate.

  • 41% percent of corporate real estate in the US is vacant. Most every company knows this but cannot tell you where. That’s $150B spent annually in the US on empty space largely because accurate data doesn’t exist.
  • Did you know that we clean, heat and light that vacant space? Billions of dollars wasted annually doing that.
  • Meanwhile, space is designed for people. Want to know how well it is performing in its duties? The status quo in the big data age is to pay somebody with a clipboard to observe and take notes.
  • If your job is to secure the largest skyscrapers in the world, you would only have a rough estimate of the number of people in the building at any moment. If you are lucky, you can access badge data. But in most buildings about 50% of occupants haven’t badged in, and rarely is there a system to badge out. So that means your count is wildly wrong. Imagine when the worst possible emergencies occur like an active shooter or an attack. Imagine explaining to the press that there is only an estimate of the number of people inside as hundreds or thousands of people are missing for days or weeks on end.

How did we get here? Why is there little to no data when it comes to people in buildings?

I can think of three reasons.

The first is that the Real Estate industry tends to be slow moving. This isn’t just because people in the industry are slow to adopt change. That is true to some extent. But probably more importantly, we are in an industry encumbered by infrastructure that simply cannot change overnight. Building takes a long time, involves a lot of stakeholders, and once something is built, it is hard to change. That said, we must continue to demand that data about how people and buildings interact is a native feature of the built environment.

Just 5 years ago, an accurate count of people in every building, room, and floor wasn’t possible.

The second reason we lack basic data about how people and buildings interact is that accurately counting people has been difficult. But that is solved now. It takes AI, machine learning and highly sophisticated non-camera based imaging to do it accurately. My company, Density, is a leader in accuracy. Just 5 years ago, an accurate count of people in every building, room, and floor wasn’t possible.

The third reason there is little to no data when it comes to people in buildings is because we have all been taught to accept the status quo.  We are collectively so accustomed to living and working in environments that are not working for us that we hardly notice how bad it is. Today’s buildings are literally indifferent to the people they were built for even though the technology exists to optimize not only our experience and productivity within a building, but also the amount spent on real estate.

We should be outraged! Look at all the energy consumed to heat and light empty space, the millions wasted maintaining empty space, and the fact we can’t find an unbooked conference room even when half of them are empty.

Sea change is hard to see when it is happening. Usually, the huge changes are the most obvious in the rear view mirror. It will only be a few years before we look back and wonder what it was like designing, building and inhabiting the biggest asset class in the world – buildings – without knowing how they actually performed for the people the serve.