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Big Data to Small Action: Change your fonts (this is what Big Data is all about)

This is what Big Data is all about. Not about the Hadoop Clusters, hosting and fancy visualization tools that you will have to buy, not about glorifying the expensive data science consultants. This one is so devoid of the big data hype, but really captures the essence of what Big Data should be about. (The hype it is getting is now totally justified IMHO) 

Suvir Mirchandani

OK, so that may have been a first for you, but it came naturally to 14-year-old Suvir Mirchandani when he was trying to think of ways to cut waste and save money at his Pittsburgh-area middle school.

It all started as a science fair project. As a neophyte sixth-grader at Dorseyville Middle School, Suvir noticed he was getting a lot more handouts than he did in elementary school.

Interested in applying computer science to promote environmental sustainability, Suvir decided he was going to figure out if there was a better way to minimize the constant flurry of paper and ink.

Reducing paper use through recycling and dual-sided printing had been talked about before as a way to save money and conserve resources, but there was less attention paid to the ink for which the paper served as a canvas for history and algebra handouts.

"Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume," Suvir says with a chuckle.

He's right: Chanel No. 5 perfume costs $38 per ounce, while the equivalent amount of Hewlett-Packard printer ink can cost up to $75.

So Suvir decided to focus his project on finding ways to cut down on the costly liquid.

Collecting random samples of teachers' handouts, Suvir concentrated on the most commonly used characters (e, t, a, o and r).

First, he charted how often each character was used in four different typefaces: Garamond, Times New Roman, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Then he measured how much ink was used for each letter, using a commercial tool called APFill® Ink Coverage Software.

Next he enlarged the letters, printed them and cut them out on cardstock paper to weigh them to verify his findings. He did three trials for each letter, graphing the ink usage for each font.

From this analysis, Suvir figured out that by using Garamond with its thinner strokes, his school district could reduce its ink consumption by 24%, and in turn save as much as $21,000 annually.

Encouraged by his teacher, Suvir looked to publish his findings and stumbled on the Journal for Emerging Investigators (JEI), a publication founded by a group of Harvard grad students in 2011 that provides a forum for the work of middle school and high school students. It has the same standards as academic journals, and each submission is reviewed by grad students and academics.

Sarah Fankhauser, one of JEI's founders, says that of the nearly 200 submissions they have received since 2011, Suvir's project was a real standout:

"We were so impressed. We really could really see the real-world application in Suvir's paper."

Fankhauser said Suvir's findings were so clear, simple and well thought-out, it had the peer reviewers at JEI asking, "How much potential savings is really out there?"

For the answer, JEI challenged Suvir to apply his project to a larger scale: the federal government.

With an annual printing expenditure of $1.8 billion, the government was a much more challenging task than his school science project.

Suvir repeated his tests on five sample pages from documents on the Government Printing Office website and got similar results --change the font, save money.

Will government printers embrace a change? 

Read on for this:

Stashed in: Big Data!, science, Fonts!, Fontastic, Change

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I am super interested to see how this change is taken up by government printers. I am also keen to see how many businesses will also recognize this opportunity and switch their corporate fonts. And how many designers and printers realize this is another place they can add a little value for their clients. 

And most interestingly, what is HP going to do with this one? 

It's highly doubtful despite the data that the government will change to a less authoritative or more fade-prone font for official business.

Greg, I hadn't really considered the 'authoritativeness of the font' but the fade-proofing is definitely an important consideration seeing as we're still largely paper based. 

This probably also explains why the Times hasn't changed its font.

Still, it's an amazing fact to consider -- and a great story.

This is a great idea, that ink companies will lobby to try to prevent from being enacted.

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