IoT Essential Truths: Just Because You Can Do It Doesn’t Mean You Should

Posted on 9th December 2013 in Essential Truths

Whilst (aren’t I the Anglophile?) walking the dog this morning, the “social sensing badges” that I’d slammed a while ago as crossing my personal line in terms of invasion of privacy popped into my head.

As I thought more about these monitors of your personal interactions in the workplace, I thought that one of my comments about them deserved elevation to the level of one of my “Essential Truths” about the IoT (i.e., such basic principles that they should be considered throughout the design and launch of any IoT service):

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it!

Primarily, it seems to me this adds a crucial ethical component to the IoT, which should never be far from our thoughts because of the omnipresent issues of privacy and security that pervade so many IoT services. In the case of the “social sensing badges,” Sociometric Solutions paints a strong case for how their badges can lead to a more productive workplace, but, IMHO, that fails to outweigh the omnipresent invasion of workers’ personal privacy that the badges represent, especially in today’s poisonous workplace environment (that’s my judgment: love the humane workplaces that prove me wrong!).

Medical solutions should particularly be subject to this test, because the information they gather and diffuse is so personal and potentially harmful. I am a huge fan of these solutions — many can literally save your life, while most will improve your quality of life — but I think they carry with them the need to place heavy emphasis on privacy and security protections if they are to be introduced.

And there’s a corollary to this Essential Truth that companies need to keep in mind:

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean I have to buy it!

That one comes to mind every time I read a breathless new update on the IoT’s Holy Grail. I speak, of course, of the “smart refrigerator!” I’ll grant you that each iteration does add more services, but suffice it to say that I ain’t making a down-payment on any of those on the market, and I doubt whether I ever will!  Why? I don’t buy a lot of prepared refrigerated foods, and I’m making at least a half-hearted effort to eat locally and farther down the food chain. Veggies and grains from the bulk bins at my store don’t come with bar codes, so I can’t personally see paying a premium for a fridge that really isn’t going to fulfill the promise of monitoring my food intake and generating my shopping list. If you’re contemplating a new IoT solution, make sure it’s really worthwhile, vs. just a gimmick.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of whether a new technology is essentially good or evil (except for the A-bomb…) or whether it’s ethically neutral.  However, I do think that the IoT, by virtue of its great strength of generating such high volumes of real-time data, does continually bump up against ethical questions, so it’s just smart policy to constantly think of whether you should do it just because you can.

What do you think? I’d love your thoughts on this important issue!

IoT Essential Truths: Coordination

Posted on 1st November 2013 in design, Essential Truths, Internet of Things, M2M, maintenance, management

Just as I’ve written repeatedly about one of the “Essential Truths” of the Internet of Things is that we have to learn how to collaborate, there’s another “co- word” that’s crucial to realize its full potential: coordinate!

That’s brought to mind by news from this week’s Internet of Things World Forum in Barcelona, where SAP (full disclosure: I’m working on a project for them), and SK Solutions, the global leader in anti­-collision software (heck, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as anti-collision software, let alone that SK was the leader!) have teamed to create a system helping engineering and construction companies increase collision avoidance and protect workers through real-time information sharing.

I’d never thought of it, but modern construction sites are a nightmare in terms of the need for coordination, with huge cranes, a multitude of construction vehicles, and many workers on the site.

The system, being tested at a construction site in Dubai, is gathering actionable, real-time data (historical data is pointless when so many players are interacting right now!) from mobile field workers, equipment and operational processes.

When you think of it, it’s difficult to maximize productivity and cut costs on a job site because so many operations have to be coordinated.

Here’s how it works:

“SK Solutions deploys sensors on cranes and construction vehicles to pull data such as 3­D motion control via inertial motion unit, location via GPS and load weight, equipment usage and wind speed and direction. This data is loaded first into the Navigator real­time operating system and its on­board set of applications, including collision avoidance. The data is then fed through the SK Navigator Anywhere Agent, which uses SAP technology. Site and project managers monitor the equipment via a dashboard built with SK Asteroid, which uses the SAP HANA platform, SAP® 3­D Visual Enterprise applications and SAP LumiraTM software. SK Asteroid 360 Middleware is a cloud­based platform that provides connectivity to SAP® Business Suite software.”

That leads me to another “Essential Truth” of the Internet of Things:

We have to start asking, where are there situations where real-time data from a variety of sources could help coordinate inter-related activities to improve safety & efficiency and reduce costs?

Whether it’s coordinating hospital rooms, integrating supply chains or assembly lines — even traffic flow — there are situations everywhere in which the Internet of Things can improve productivity, reduce operating costs — and even save lives.

N.B. For those who are interested in what the prefix co- really means, it’s from a Latin prefix of the same name, and means togethermutuallyjointly. Class dismissed..

Essential Truths of the IoT: Listen to the Things

No, “Listen to the Things” isn’t some sort of zen lesson, although it could be!

It is one of my occasional series of “Essential Truths of the IoT“: fundamental underlying principles that are essential to understanding the true nature of the Internet of Things as a fundamental paradigm shift.

Sensor-equipped GE power turbine

I think particularly of General Electric when I think of this fundamental principle, because GE is turning “listening to things” into major innovations in product design that, in turn, are leading to new ways of marketing their products and new revenue streams.

For example, not only is GE able to optimize production of the advanced cell-phone tower batteries at its state-of-the-art factory in Schenectady, NY because of 10,000 sensors on the assembly line, but also the batteries themselves include built-in sensors that allow GE to monitor their condition.

Thinking in terms of “listening to things” has revolutionized the very way GE markets its jet engines. Some of its new engines contain 20 sensors, which can generate up to a were 20 sensors that monitor the engine’s performance, generating up to a terrabyte of information on a cross-country flight. That allows the airline user to do “predictive maintenance,” which uses actual data on the actual engine — not just some recommended service interval for engines in general, to determine when that specific engine needs maintenance for best performance.

It also gives GE the option of leasing the engine instead of selling it, with the actual price of the lease again dependent on the actual usage of that particular engine, rather than some arbitrary average.

The customer also benefits — as does the global environment. GE calculates that if “an average-sized airline used F&CS  (Fuel and Carbon Solution to achieve a 2% improvement in fuel consumption, it would be equivalent to removing more than 10,000 cars from our roads.”

Here’s the problem — and the opportunity. We’re used to “dumb things” that were inscrutable — you couldn’t “listen” to how they were actually operating if your life depended on it. As a result, we don’t automatically see the opportunities to redesign products to include sensors that will automatically report real-time data about their operating state and possible problems. To capitalize on this “Essential Truth” of the IoT we will have to start asking a new question:

what things that are part of our intrastructure and/or our products
can be redesigned so we can “listen” to them — and 
learn from them?

Could Information Silos Kill the Internet of Things?

I missed this when it came out in July, but thought it was worthy of notice!

In an Information Age article, Maurizio Pilu, a European leader in development of the IoT, throws cold water on those of us who believe the IoT may be as big an innovation as the Industrial Age. Pilu, who runs the UK’s Connected Digital Economy Catapult, which was established by the Technology Strategy Board to growth the UK’s digital economy, says that the IoT is an “..evolution, not a revolution.”

He should know: after all, his prior job was running the TSB’s “Internet of things” program.

“He believes the Internet of things will (sic) gradualy follow analyst company Gartner’s much-cited hype cycle – a peak of inflated expectations, followed by a trough of disillusionment, followed by enlightenment and mainsteam adoption.

“If that’s true, then the trough is surely on its way. Last year, Gartner’s hype cycle for emerging technologies had the Internet of things approaching its peak.

“One risk factor that jeopardises the Internet of things’ potential is siloed thinking, Pilu believes. Every industry projects its own demands on the Internet of things, and the result may be disjointed – and therefore less powerful – systems.”

I don’t buy Pilu’s argument, but I do agree that “siloed thinking” is a threat to full development of the IoT. You’ll remember that my first “Essential Truth” about the IoT is that we must begin asking a fundamentally new question that is at odds with the old way of treating knowledge — hoarding proprietary information:

Who else could use this data?

In part, Pilu’s skepticism stems from the results of a program last year:

.. the TSB oversaw a significant research programme to study the potential impact of the Internet of things.

“It brought together over 400 business and public sector organisations to develop proof-of-concept projects for potential Internet of things applications. These ranged from a mobile fitness app that could sell aggregated data to retailers to an assisted living system to monitor patients in their homes.

“Ten study groups examined these projects, conducting interviews and focus groups, to assess their technical, social and ethical impact.

“’One thing we found across all the studies was uncertainty about how to unlock the value from the Internet of things,’ says Pilu.  ‘But another common theme was the use of data.’

Pilu argues that making data openly available will be the key to unlocking the Internet of things’ real potential.

But, as many of the TSB’s projects found, this is not always possible. One study looked at the public infrastructure on city streets, for example, and found that the associated data is often held in closed systems or discarded quickly after being gathered. 

“’There are few incentives to make data available, owing to a combination of actual or perceived liabilities, unclear returns and costs,’ it concludes.”

So sharing information won’t come easily. It’s an issue to which I plan to devote much of my efforts in the field. I’ll keep you posted!

Essential Truth of the IoT: empowering individuals!

I am still euphoric after last night’s IoT Meetup in Providence (such a meeting of the minds!) and it inspired me to write another of my posts about what I see as “Essential Truths” of the IoT!

In fact, I dare say this is the most profound — and perhaps least understood — way in which the IoT will bring about fundamental transformation of our lives.

When we talk about IoT components such as automated Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication, it tends to obscure the human aspect of the IoT.

I think that’s going to be a HUGE component of the change, and one that we won’t be able to fully appreciate or exploit until the IoT is an omni-present part of our daily lives.

That’s because we have labored under such fundamental restrictions on communicating about data in the past that we can’t really visualize what things will be like when those restrictions are removed and data flows freely.

Here’s where something truly magical comes in!

It is no knock on even the most creative organization or its staff to say that it doesn’t have a strangle-hold on the truth: there’s simply no way that any organization or any individual can think of all the ways that certain data could create value. But when you make that information readily available, someone who has a particular interest (OK, maybe we’re talking about obsession!) or feels particular pain about that thing can come forward with a creative new product or service to capitalize on that information. I can visualize mutually beneficial partnerships that we can’t conceive of today between major corporations and tiny startups (i.e., GE/Quirky/Electric Imp  — or perhaps even individuals  (that’s the kind of thing that Innocentive has successfully pioneered with its challenges, where many of the profitable solutions have come from rank amateurs who may have no professional credentials but personal zeal and insights).

I realize that senior managers may be uncomfortable talking about the role “magic” can play in development of profitable new goods and services, but I humbly suggest that with the birth of the IoT it’s something they should add to their vocabulary.

What a future!


Essential Truth: Gathering “Ground Truth” through IoT

This is the second in my occasional series of “Essential Truths” — key principles and questions about the Internet of Things.

On Tuesday, when I speak to our next Boston/New England IoT Meetup on the issue of “human communications and the IoT” one of the concepts I’ll be focusing on is what Chris Rezendes of INEX Advisors calls “ground truth,” a concept he was exposed to through his work with clients in the defense industry.

This is the idea that when devices become “smart,” they give off “digital exhaust” (in the same way as our searches do, which Google analyzes, allowing improvement in search results) which creates “device intelligence” that we can analyze and act upon. That is ground truth: accurate data about real-world conditions that we can share in real-time to improve operating performance and analysis.

According to Chris,

“You will have data, objective facts, about that tree or tidal pool, that machine or that vehicle, that room or that field, that patient or that criminal. The data in that ground truth will complement certain aspects of our perceptions about those things; and displace our misperceptions. And that ground truth will help us all make better decisions about how to manage our time on earth.”
— “Internet of Things: Grandest Opportunity, Most Stubborn Challenges

It seems to me that this is one of the IoT’s most important potential benefits: improving decision-making by being able to base it on factual, timely information.

Think, for example, about the contentious issue of global warming. Cisco’s  “Planetary Skin,” and HP’s  “central nervous system for the planet” projects will deploy unprecedented numbers of remote sensors planet-wide, yielding real-time data about how global warming is affecting your community. It may not win over the hard-core global warming deniers (they’ll never listen to reason, IMHO!) but it should provide the objective evidence that rational people can agree on as the basis for action.

Even better, we can also improve this decision making because of my first “Essential Truth,” learning to ask “who else can use this data?”  Think of it: within limits, of course, the more perspectives that are brought into decision making the more likely we are to make sound decisions, because the likelihood of leaving out some important perspective and not analyzing all the possible ramifications is reduced. In the past, we could never do that, because we didn’t have the real-time data, and we couldn’t involve all of those people on a real-time basis.

I suspect that this will be a major issue for management theorists to bat around in coming years, and that our decision-making processes will be fundamentally altered for the better. IMHO, it is this change in decision making, not advances such as automatic regulation of assembly lines or building in feedback loops between manufacturers and customers, is perhaps the most important thing that the IoT will allow. It will have profound impact!

Thanks for the concept, Chris!

Essential #IoT Truths: who else could use this data?

Two weeks ago at the EntreTech seminar on the Internet of Things, good buddy Chris Rezendes told an anecdote that blew me away, both because it was such a powerful demonstration of the IoT’s potential to transform our world and because it reminded me of one of the IoT’s “Essential Truths.”

Chris mentioned that Grundfos, the world’s largest pump manufacturer, now includes sensors that report on the operating status of pumps at remote wells that dot Africa. They did it so that monitoring the wells would allow customers to improve maintenance of the wells and do it more economically, dispatching repair crews only when needed.

Nice, but not the cool, transformational part!

As you may know, Africans (primarily the women) often walk hours each day to-and-from their villages in order to get vital water — often carrying big jugs on their shoulders for many miles. Some dear soul at Grundfos realized that the same data that helped their customers improve management of the wells could also let the women know when there was adequate water flow at the well to make it worthwhile to make the trek (rather than having to walk to several wells before actually finding water — an all-too-frequent occurence).  So Grundfos made the data available to designers who were able to create an app that the women could read on their phones before leaving their village to determine where to go.  It cut the average amount of time the women spend per day hunting for water from 8 hours to 3 — a dramatic savings that allows them to spend their time on more productive and less tiring activities!  Isn’t that wonderful?

The second lesson I drew from the Grundfos data story was one that I first detailed two years ago in my book Data Dynamite: I argued that in the new era of “democratizing data,” that managers need to learn to routinely ask a new question when they examine a data set:


With the vast quantities of data that will be created by the IoT, the question is more relevant than ever!

This question doesn’t come easily to many managers. For so long, the secret to economic success was proprietary information that I had and you didn’t (for those with long memories, proprietary operating systems were the secret to the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the 1980s, when companies such as DEC and Prime created entire ecosystems around their proprietary systems).

Now, however, the future lies with open standards and shared data, that will actually create more wealth by sharing information because other people with a particular insight or critical need will realize that your data can be combined in mashups with other data sets to create whole new insights and valuable information.

Asking this question can also be a powerful tool to get rid of information silos within organizations, on the realization that many people in many departments can now potentially share the same near-real-time data at the same time, both improving coordination of activities such as supply-chain management and improving decision-making.

It’s time to wipe away the last vestiges of the old way of creating wealth and instead ask ourselves “who else could use this data?” The chances are that, whether inside your organization or — more daringly — outside it, you’ll be able to find other potential users who can cooperate to create new services and revenue streams as well as increasing operating efficiency.

So who else could use your Internet of Things data?

PS: I’ll be offering more of these “Essential #IoT Truths” on an occasional basis in the future, prodded by Chris Rezendes, who finally hammered it into my thick skull that all of my years in consulting on communications in a wide range of field meant that my unique contribution to the IoT can and should be to help  companies with the human communication aspects of the IoT that often tend to get obscured by our emphasis on machine-2-machine communication. Thanks, Chris (I plan to develop consulting services in this area to be offered in conjunction with INEX Advisors)! I’ll be speaking on this topic at a Meetup in Providence later this month — details to follow.">Stephenson blogs on Internet of Things Internet of Things strategy, breakthroughs and management