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Commvault GO: ‘Sully,’ Swan emphasize good data’s value

We hear a lot of talk these days about machine learning and artificial intelligence. Those are hot and valuable technologies, but two speakers at Commvault GO last week highlighted the importance of human learning and genuine intelligence in using data.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and polar explorer Robert Swan gave Commvault GO keynotes explaining how the proper use of good data can prove invaluable – and even save lives – without requiring analytics or any computers at all.

Sullenberger was well known to the Commvault GO audience for landing a US Airways airplane safely on the Hudson River in New York with 150 passengers aboard. He was widely hailed as a hero after that Jan. 15, 2009 event, and played by Tom Hanks in the movie Sully. Swan, a U.K. native, isn’t a U.S. household name but he has travelled to both the North and South Poles, and remains an active adventurer at age 60.

Their talks fit in the show’s theme of data management, even if they used their gut rather than fancy data analytics to interpret information.

“I used data not in any specific way, but used data to frame my decision,” Sullenberger said of his famous flight. “So what couldn’t be a computational decision was more of an intuitive one. But it really wasn’t, it was totally a cerebral exercise.

Yet it was a decision based on accurate information. It came from what Sullenberger knew about his airplane and from what more than three decades in the Air Force and as a commercial pilot taught him about flight and navigation.

Sullenberger considered his options within seconds when the plane lost its engines after striking a flock of geese. He took control of the plane from copilot Jeff Skiles, who had less experience with that type of aircraft.

Sullenberger then determined the plane with damaged engines could not make it to the nearest airports, LaGuardia in New York City or Teterboro in northern New Jersey. After deciding to land in the Hudson River, he knew the best spot would be between two water ferries. That way, their crews could rescue the passengers quickly enough in freezing water. Sullenberger calculated the best angle and speed to land the plane to keep the impact from destroying it.

He said his decisions were “based on having flown jets for years, and having managed the height and speed and total energy of jets very precisely for thousands of flights.”

Sullenberger said there were no flight simulations for water landing at the airline.

“The only training we ever got at water landing was a theoretical classroom discussion,” he told the Commvault GO attendees. “But because I knew not just what and the how, but the why, even in that situation I could set clear priorities. I learned that bad outcomes are almost never the result of a single fault, a single failure or a single error. Instead, they are the end result of a causal chain of events. I made sure when I saw these causal links in a chain begin to line up, I would intervene to break them.”

Pole walking, without electronic gadgets

Explorer Swan’s claim to fame is he led teams that ventured on foot to the South Pole and North Pole.

In other words, “I’m the first person in history stupid enough to walk to both poles,” he said during Commvault GO.

Actually, stupid didn’t figure in either mission.

He relied on data culled from those who went before him, and from scientific agencies such as NASA before his dangerous treks. His team walked 900 miles – including the final 70 days without radio communication – before reaching the South Pole on Jan. 11, 1986. He nearly drowned because of unseasonable melting of Arctic ice before arriving at the North Pole on May 14, 1989.

But, like “Sully,” Swan had to work and survive without the benefit of real-time computer data analytics. Swan had no electronics to call on, and not even compasses work at the South Pole.

“Whatever limited data we had, we used to stay alive,” he said. Swan said his critical data came from using “the sun, a sextant and a watch. We knew if we make mistakes, we’re going to die.”

Swan and his son Barry are due to set off Wednesday on a 600-mile expedition to the South Pole using only renewable energy. The trip is expected to take eight weeks. They will carry solar panels to power NASA-designed ice melters that will give them water to drink and cook with.

“One day, NASA will use these ice melters on Mars,” Swan said.

Swan’s mission now is to help clean up Earth, which scientific data tells us is in danger.

“My target is to clean up 326 million tons of carbon before end of 2025,” he said. “Our survival on earth and the data people like NASA provide to protect us, we should take that seriously. Climate change is happening. How much we’re causing it, we don’t know yet. But as a survivor, I’m going to try and do something about it. Just in case.”

Sullenberger agreed that today more than ever, we need to heed science and facts.

“We have an obligation to be scientifically literate,” Sullenberg said. “In other words, you can’t use data if you don’t understand it. We have an obligation to be good citizens, which means that if we must make important decisions, we need to be capable of independent critical through. And when we make important decisions, we must make them based on facts, not based on fears or falsehoods. And certainly not on big lies, even if they are told loudly and often.”

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