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Managing Big (RFID) Data

Retailers tracking unique items via radio frequency identification are concerned about how to take advantage of all the data they collect. A recent MIT-sponsored event began to address this issue.
By Stephen Miles
Nov 19, 2012There is a lot of talk these days about Big Data. The term refers to a collection of data so large and complex that companies cannot process it all using existing database systems. Think Google, Facebook and Linked-In. Retailers that are among the first to deploy radio frequency identification solutions to track individual items are learning what Big Data is all about. And that's why in February, Joe Andraski, who at time was serving as president of the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Solutions VICS and championing the VICS Item Level RFID Initiative (VILRI), asked the MIT Auto-ID Labs to organize an event focused on "what to do with item-level RFID data" generated by the initial rollouts in the retail apparel industry.

In collaboration with VICS, GS1, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council's Big Data Cluster and the MIT Industrial Liaison Program, the Auto-ID Labs Big Data Conference and Startup Challenge was held on Oct. 9-10 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The event brought together MIT thought leaders, cloud-computing providers and technology leaders from large retailers, to address how to harness the plethora of data being generated for omnichannel retail and mobile retail commerce applications.

Why is processing item-level bar-code and RFID data and mobile retail consumer data a challenge?

First, there is the issue of a common registry and identifier namespace. While the Internet employs a common Domain Name Server (DNS) and unique Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, companies often have difficulty agreeing on a common registry for items designated with an Electronic Product Code (EPC). It does not help that, in the evolution of bar-code systems, portions of the retail supply chain retain a variety of legacy coding schemes. In a recent example, the program manager for implementing item-level RFID on the first stock-keeping unit (SKU) at full production speeds for a large pharmaceutical firm identified artwork requirements for seven different symbologies, including GS1, Interleave 205 (Interleaved 2 of 5 bar code) and Healthcare Distribution Management Association (HDMA) linear bar codes, the National Drug Code (NCD), a 2D bar code and an RFID code. The industry has yet to agree on batch and lot number representations for these coding schemes. That's the bad news. The good news is that these identifiers can nonetheless serve as keys to link information on the Web with enterprise application data.

Associating unique identifiers with metadata related to a business process when data is captured is a second challenge. EPC Information Services (EPCIS) specifications, at the time they were written, assumed that a handheld bar-code or RFID reader would be attached to a dedicated enterprise application, such as a warehouse management system (WMS) or a transportation management system (TMS) with defined business processes. But how do you ascertain the business-process context of a standalone smart reader or smartphone connected to an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), or to the cloud, where many applications are running?

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