LOL: The Boston Olympics that Will Not Be: How the IoT MIGHT Have Pulled It Off!

Well, there go the billions my wife and I were going to make from renting our house through Airbnb for the Boston 2024 Olympics….   The US Olympic Committee pulled their support for the bid several hours ago based on the lack of public support for the proposal, which comes as NO surprise to those of us who know and (sometimes) love the local sport of choice in Boston: not the modern pentathalon, but debating any issue ad nauseum and eating our own.

Oh well!  I’d been planning a special meeting of our Boston IoT MeetUp for September about how the IoT really might make it possible that we could both build the Olympic infrastructure on time and on budget through creative use of the IoT AND also build a positive legacy that would endure after the games were over.

I’d also just written an op-ed on the subject. Since the chances of getting one of the local rags to publish that now are also zero, I thought I’d post it here, in hopes that it may inspire the other cities still bidding for the Games to adopt this approach, and that Boston and Massachusetts will also make the IoT a critical part of any major construction projects and smart city strategies.


What if a single approach could meet both of Boston 2024’s main challenges: building the venues on-time and under budget, AND assuring a positive legacy for the city, region and state?

There is: the Internet of Things (IoT), the concept of linking not just people, but also devices, via the Internet so they can be coordinated and activated automatically and in real time.  The IoT is already a reality, as demonstrated by examples ranging from “smart” thermostats you can adjust from your smartphone to fitness devices that let you track your vital signs.

While most are still unaware of the IoT, Boston was recently ranked as the world’s fourth-leading city in terms of numbers of IoT companies, and the Boston IoT MeetUp that I co-chair has grown to 1400 members in less than two years.

Every Olympics faces serious questions because of the history of cost overruns and construction delays, but our bid faces the extra burden of the botched Big Dig.

Construction sites are inherently chaotic because of so much equipment and so many subcontractors, resulting in an astounding 70-80% idle time, but the IoT changes that.  My client, SAP, and SK Solutions have collaborated in Dubai (which is on a construction binge dwarfing anything the Olympics might bring), putting sensors on all of the construction equipment, trucks, etc., so that the managers can visualize, in real-time, who is where, and make sure the right ones are in place and ready to go exactly when needed. Everyone who needs it, from operators to maintenance, shares the same data at the same time, building collaboration and efficiency.

The IoT can also make the games run smoothly and efficiently. After last Winter, we know how poorly the MBTA operates currently. The IoT can dramatically improve operations because sensors will report real-time data about the condition of every piece of rolling stock, so issues can be dealt with quickly and cheaply ( “predictive maintenance”) before they become critical. Ports and airports, such as Logan, are also inherently chaotic, but the Port of Hamburg has increased its operating efficiency through IoT coordination of every vehicle.  Clever IoT transportation projects already underway by the Mayor’s Office of the New Urban Mechanics can also help the games operate efficiently.

Believe it or not, even the most prosaic parts of our urban landscape can and must be reinvented to make the games run smoothly.  You’ve already seen the ultra-modern Big Belly Solar trash compactors (from Needham) that now dot downtown, which compact trash and collect recycling to make our streets cleaner. But did you know that each of them also houses a wireless system that creates a free “mesh network” that gives us free wi-fi access on the streets as well (and, in a post-Olympics disaster, could provide real-time response information)? Why not deploy them region-wide? Or, why have conventional streetlights when there are ones that not only cut electric use with LED bulbs, but also have banner-like LED panels that could have constantly-changing panels about that day’s events and would switch instantly to showing real-time detours because of data about traffic jams just ahead?

The Olympics will also stress our electricity infrastructure, and the IoT can help there as well. Two-way real-time data flow will allow a electric “smart grid” to dispatch power exactly when, where, and in the amount needed. What if we also had the world’s best network of neighborhood electric car chargers, and if Zip Car, one of our home-bred IoT innovations, became the preferred way of getting around not just downtown, but also the whole region?

A smart grid and efficient, reliable mass transit wouldn’t be the only positive legacy from the IoT.  If the Olympic Village to house the athletes was made up of “smart buildings” with built-in sensors, after the Olympics they would become economical, user-friendly and affordable apartments.

You may not have heard much about the Internet of Things so far, but the technology is already here, and the cost is plummeting.  Major orders for sensors, operating software and other components for the Olympics would create more jobs in our local IoT industry and further drive down the IoT’s cost.

Experts agree that the IoT will bring about as radical a transformation in our lives and economy as the Internet did, and making it the centerpiece of Boston’s Olympics construction, operations and legacy planning could make us again the Hub of the (Internet of Things) Universe.


Oh well!

Smart Cities: opportunity … and danger if security isn’t a priority

Smart cities are one of the Internet of Things’ most promising areas — as well as one of the most potentially dangerous.

As this list of smart city initiatives shows, The IoT can reduce energy consumption, cut operating costs, and improve the quality of life. However, if hacked, it could also potentially paralyze an entire city and plunge it into darkness and/or create traffic gridlock.

As in so many other IoT areas, which scenario wins out will rest increasingly on making security and privacy in smart cities an absolute priority from Day 1, not an afterthought.

A recent New York Times article brings the issue to the foreground again, through the work of Cesar Cerrudo, an Argentine security researcher and chief technology officer at IOActive Labs, who showed what happens when idiots (so sue me…) decide not to make security a priority:

” (he) demonstrated how 200,000 traffic control sensors installed in major hubs like Washington; New York; New Jersey; San Francisco; Seattle; Lyon, France; and Melbourne, Australia, were vulnerable to attack. Mr. Cerrudo showed how information coming from these sensors could be intercepted from 1,500 feet away — or even by drone — because one company had failed to encrypt its traffic.

“Just last Saturday, Mr. Cerrudo tested the same traffic sensors in San Francisco and found that, one year later, they were still not encrypted.”

Even worse, Cerrudo found the same failure to bake in obvious security measures such as encryption in a wide range of other smart city devices and software.

The article goes on to cite a variety of very real cybersecurity threats to cities and critical infrastructure (don’t forget that about 85% of the nation’s critical infrastructure is in private ownership) including a break-in at a utility’s control network by a “sophisticated threat actor” that just guessed a password.

Among the measures Cerrudo suggests that cities take to reduce their vulnerability:

  • think of cities “as vast attack surfaces that require security protection just as a corporate network might.”
  • encrypt data, use strong passwords, and patch security holes
  • create computer emergency response teams (CERTs), for rapid response
  • restrict data access and monitor who does have it.
  • “Finally, he suggests that cities prepare for the worst, as they would for a natural disaster.”

He concluded:

“When we see that the data that feeds smart city systems is blindly trusted and can be easily manipulated — that the systems can be easily hacked and there are security problems everywhere — that is when smart cities become dumb cities.” (my emphasis)

Let me be blunt about it: whether in smart cities or any other aspect of the Internet of Things, if your attitude is “we’ll get around to security” after concentrating on product development, you’re irresponsible and deserve to fail — before your irresponsibility harms others.

BTW, here’s a great way for you to have a role in shaping tomorrow’s smart cities. IBM (who would have thunk it?  I suspect this is reflects Ginni Rometty’s change in direction and attitude at the top) has created People for Smarter Cities, a new site to crowdsource ideas for how to make cities smarter. It’s a great example of democratizing innovation, one of my IoT Essential Truths. I plan to contribute and hope you will as well!

Virtual Sensor Networks: a key #IoT tool?

I was once again honored to be a guest on Coffee Break With Game Changers Radio today with David Jonker and Ira Berk of SAP — it’s always a delight to have a dialogue on the Internet of Things with these two brainy guys (and hats off as well to moderator/host Bonnie Graham!).

Toward the end of the show, Ira brought up a concept that was new to me: virtual sensor networks.

I’ve got sensors on the brain right now, because I’m frankly worried that sensors that don’t have adequate baked-in security and privacy protections and which can’t be ungraded as new opportunities and threats present themselves may be a threat to the IoT because they typically remain in use for so many years. Ah, but that’s a topic for another post.

According to Wikipedia, Virtual sensor networks are an:

“… emerging form of collaborative wireless sensor networks. In contrast to early wireless sensor networks that were dedicated to a specific application (e.g., target tracking), VSNs enable multi-purpose, collaborative, and resource efficient WSNs. The key idea difference of VSNs is the collaboration and resource sharing….
“… A VSN can be formed by providing logical connectivity among collaborative sensors. Nodes can be grouped into different VSNs based on the phenomenon they track (e.g., rock slides vs. animal crossing) or the task they perform. VSNs are expected to provide the protocol support for formation, usage, adaptation, and maintenance of subset of sensors collaborating on a specific task(s). Even the nodes that do not sense the particular event/phenomenon could be part of a VSN as far as they are willing to allow sensing nodes to communicate through them. Thus, VSNs make use of intermediate nodes, networks, or other VSNs to efficiently deliver messages across members of a VSN.”

Makes sense to me: collaboration is a critical basic component of the human aspect of the IoT (one of my IoT “Essential Truths), so why shouldn’t that extend to the mechanics as well?). If you have a variety of sensors already deployed in a given area, why should you have to deploy a whole new set of single-purpose ones to monitor a different condition if data could be synthesized from the existing sensors to effectively yield the same needed information?

2008 article on the concept said the virtual sensor networks are particularly relevant to three categories where data is* needed:

“Firstly, VSNs are useful in geographically overlapped applications, e.g., monitoring rockslides and animal crossing within a mountainous terrain. Different types of devices that detect these phenomena can relay each other for data transfer without having to deploy separate networks (Fig. 1). Secondly, VSNs are useful in logically separating multipurpose sensor networks, e.g., smart neighborhood systems with multifunctional sensor nodes. Thirdly, VSNs can be used to enhance efficiency of systems that track dynamic phenomena such as subsurface chemical plumes that migrate, split, or merge. Such networks may involve dynamically varying subsets of sensors.”

That article went on to propose a flexible, self-organizing “cluster-tree” approach to create the VSN, using tracking of a pollution plume as an example:

“…  a subset of nodes organizes themselves to form a VSN to track a specific plume. Whenever a node detects a relevant event for the first time it sends a message towards the root of the cluster tree indicating that it is aware of the phenomenon and wants to collaborate with similar nodes. The node may join an existing VSN or makes it possible for other nodes that wish to form a VSN, to find it. Use of a cluster tree or a similar structure guarantees that two or more nodes observing the same phenomenon will discover each other. Simulation based results show that our approach is more efficient and reliable than Rumor Routing and is able to combine all the nodes that collaborate on a specific task into a VSN.”

I suspect the virtual sensor network concept will become particularly widespread as part of “smart city” deployments: cash-strapped municipalities will want to get as much bang for the buck possible from already-deployed sensors, without having to install new ones. Bet my friends in Spain at Libellium will be in the forefront of this movement!

Thanks, Ira!

*BTW: if any members of the Grammar Police are lurking out there (I’m a retired lt. colonel of the Mass. State Grammar Police myself), you may take umbrage at “data is.”  Strictly speaking, the proper usage in the past has been “data are,” but the alternative is becoming so widespread that it’s becoming acceptable usage. So sue me…


Smart water grid — as important as smart energy grid

Posted on 5th November 2013 in environmental, Internet of Things, M2M

Environmental efficiency is one of my passions, and there’s compelling evidence that shortages of clean water are almost as much a threat to life on Earth as global warming is.

That’s why I was so excited to learn that Spain — already an exemplar of “smarter cities” thinking (due in large part to Libelium using it as a test site for its devices) — is launching a “smart water grid” program in the city of  Cáceres.

According to Jesse Berst (you really should subscribe to his Smart Grid News!), ACCIONA Agua, the water services division of ACCIONA, a global renewable energy, infrastructure and water services group, will build the system “as part of a European project that aims to apply new technologies to the management of drinking water networks.”

Its benefits will parallel those for “smart grid” electricity projects, including real-time detection of underwater leaks (so they can be repaired more quickly) and real-time control of water distribution and use, and remote meter reading that will allow the utility to alert homeowners to possible leaks in the home or other problems.

Note the critical benefits of real-time data: “Real time data is expected to optimize investment plans according to real needs, as well as hone the management of water services.”

Components will include:

  • remote meter readers
  • GIS
  • remote control information
  • water quality monitoring sensors
  • mathematical model to predicting the system’s behavior.

The project is part of ” SmartWater4Europe, an EU research project that brings together 21 participants, including water utilities, technology companies, universities and research centers. The project has a budget of more than €10 million, of which €2.5 million has been assigned to Cáceres.” Results will be monitored over a 4 year period.

I’ve been noodling for a while about what it will take to get mainstream companies that may not even know about the IoT, let alone have a strategy to capitalize on it, to test the waters. I’ve concluded that since water and energy utility bills are such a big issue for most companies that launching “smart grid” projects that capitalize on utilities’ investments in this area and can lead to quick savings in utility bills might be the ideal entry point. What do you think?

survey: M2M natural evolution of “consumerization of IT”

A new survey of worldwide IT decision makers (ITDMs as the acronym goes…) by Harris Interactive for SAP includes some pretty convincing reminders that the Internet of Things (in this case the emphasis is on M2M) is as much about empowering people as it is about things.

“..most ITDMs in all six countries view M2M as the natural evolution of the ‘consumerization of IT,’ with India and China at 92 percent and 90 percent respectively. The majority of Brazilian, German, UK and US ITDMs agreed, with a combined average of 81 percent.”

A lot of mobile devices are changing everything!

A quote from Sanjay Poonen, president of SAP’s Technology Solutions and Mobile Division, neatly ties the technology and human elements together:

“Today, M2M technology is primarily being used to collect vast amounts of machine data. The ‘Internet of Things’ goes one step further by integrating data from machines, ERP, CRM systems, social media and more, in real time, allowing humans to intelligently interact with devices, devices with devices and devices back to humans – the ultimate social media collaboration of man and machine.” (I spared you the self-serving conclusion: that SAP is uniquely qualified to bring all this together..LOL.).

Other important findings include:

  • “pluralities from all six countries surveyed said that smart cities would be the coolest (now there’s a technical term…)  possible outcome of M2M: China (35 percent), Brazil (35 percent), Germany (30 percent), India (27 percent), US (25 percent) and UK (21 percent).” Come on, US
    “ITDMs”: only 25% of you agree??
  • “…an average of 70 percent of the ITDMs in all six countries surveyed agree that companies that fail to implement M2M technologies will fall behind their competitors.”
  • Companies  will gain more insight into their business: China (96 percent), India (88 percent), Brazil (86 percent), Germany (79 percent), US (74 percent) and UK (61 percent)
  • Businesses will be able to respond to real world events: China (92 percent), India (86 percent), Brazil (82 percent), Germany (82 percent), US (78 percent) and UK (73 percent)

“Those surveyed also view the following as presenting the biggest opportunities for M2M in the workplace:

  • Increased efficiency was the No. 1 response in Brazil (54 percent), UK (53 percent) and US (49 percent)
  • Increased productivity for employees was the top selection in China (69 percent), significantly higher than any other countries surveyed
  • Increased employee collaboration was the No. 1 opportunity in Germany (63 percent)
  • Increased mobility among the workforce was the biggest opportunity in India (65 percent).”

I cast my lot with the Germans: while efficiency and productivity will definitely improve, I think the real hidden bonus of M2M in the workplace will be how collaboration will increase when everyone can share the same near-real-time data!

At the same time, the respondents said there were significant obstacles to full use of M2M. As Poonen summarized:

“The benefits of M2M are undeniable but there are barriers toward the adoption of M2M solutions, such as the lack of complete multi-industry offerings, management, security and big data issues, and deficiency of suitable global connectivity solutions that are needed by multinational enterprises.”

This survey is yet more evidence, as if we needed it, that the Internet of Things is finally rising in corporate awareness — or at least among those “ITDMs!” Now the question is how many of their employers will begin to craft IoT action plans.