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Can I clean sweet potatoes in this washing machine?

Happy New Year! Let’s launch the year with a post that threads together some of the topics we’ve been looking at — big, smart, and open data alongside multifunctionality. This is the story of Chinese appliance maker Haier. The company used “small data” obtained from its service engineers to find out that many rural clothes washers were clogging because people used them to wash vegetables. The solution was not educating consumers how to properly use the machines. Instead Haier introduced a new machine used for washing clothes, sweet potatoes and peanuts.

washing machine used to wash vegetables

washing vegetables in a clothes washer

A bit of internet searching showed that this story has made the rounds–although I couldn’t find a picture of the actual machine, and the image here just gives the idea of washing vegetables. I first read the story in a Strategy and Business article by David Meer, ” ‘Little Data’ Matters Too”.

Meer argues that with all the hype about big data, we shouldn’t be dumb about the wealth of “small,” technologically-seeming “unsmart” data that may be all around us. Service engineers observed clogged washing machines, a large beverage company used sales reps to help the company better classify different types of bars and restaurants, a health insurance company studied full transcripts of all its service calls to improve communications.

So the question is, where’s the small data all around us? Have you as a researcher or your students considered the lifecycle of data around your design project? Map out the product lifecycle and consider where you could find useful “little data”–from the people on the shop floor making stuff? from the drivers or sales reps who deliver to stores? from the users who have problems? from the cities and counties that accept your product into the waste stream?


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