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GE Contests Shoot For Innovation Via Crowdsourcing

GE's Industrial Internet Quests challenge global experts to create new algorithms to improve air travel and healthcare.

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General Electric (GE) has announced the winners of two contests that showcase the power of crowdsourcing to solve complex, big data-style problems. Battling for $600,000 in cash prizes, data scientists and developers from 58 countries submitted more than 3,000 ideas to help solve challenges facing the air travel and healthcare industries.

Working in conjunction with Kaggle, a San Francisco-based analytics company that specializes in globally crowdsourced competitions, as well as Alaska Airlines and Ochsner Health System, GE launched its first two "Industrial Internet Quests" in November 2012.

The contests also served as a testing ground for enterprises that may be considering crowdsourcing as an alternative to the traditional approach of solving thorny technical problems in-house. "The idea of doing everything yourself -- inside one building in one part of the world -- you're only going to get so many answers so fast," said Bill Ruh, vice president of GE’s Software and Analytics Center, in a phone interview with InformationWeek. "Open collaboration with customers, developers, and others you don't know will help us go faster."

[ New brain research initiative will require unprecedented data processing power. Read more at Obama Brain Mapping Project Tests Big Data Limits. ]

Contestants in GE's Flight Quest competition received two months of flight information from the United States' National Airspace System. The data included flight takeoff and arrival times, origin and destination cities, weather and wind facts, and latitude and longitude at frequent interim waypoints during flights. The participants used this data set to develop algorithms to better predict flight arrival times at runways and gates. The average error in predicted arrival time is 7 minutes. The winning Flight Quest algorithms showed a 40% improvement over that industry benchmark, according to GE.

Details on the first-phase winners are available here.

A second phase of the Flight Quest challenge has just gotten underway. "Now we up the game a little bit," said Ruh. "We're trying to give the pilots more insight about the routes and allow them to make smarter decisions."

In Hospital Quest, participants devised ways to reduce the estimated $100 billion wasted annually by inefficient healthcare. The 1st place winner was Aidin, a Web application designed to improve the hospital discharge experience. Information on the winning Hospital Quest projects is available here.

While Flight Quest attracted more of an international group of contestants -- 4 of the top 5 prices went to participants outside the U.S. -- Hospital Quest drew more interest from U.S.-based technologists. "Maybe that reflects that the healthcare problem may be more of a localized issue, and aviation is a global problem -- people self-selecting which problems to deal with based on their interests," Ruh surmised.

In additional to providing insights into the effectiveness of crowdsourcing, the Industry Internet Quests may also offer big data benefits to GE and other enterprises. "We are one of the biggest data companies in the world. We collect an enormous amount of data," said Ruh.

For instance, GE has 12,000 gas turbines. A single sensor on one of those turbines generates 500GB of data each day. "That's just one sensor, and there are 20 sensors on a gas turbine," Ruh added. "We're trying to figure out how you collect all that, and how to get value out of it. We're on that journey today."

Crowdsourcing, it appears, may soon play a significant role in global research projects. "This is the way of the future. It's not so much about the collection of data, but about the algorithms that act on (the data) to give you insight," said Ruh. "We see these (contests) as one key part of open collaboration.

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