What does IoT mean for the citizen?

Innovation News

For many industry watchers there is a good deal of marketing hype behind the ‘Internet of Things’. I wanted to peel that marketing hype back and outline examples illustrating the value for the citizen behind the buzz-word bingo.

The EU eCall initiative, now due in 2017, will utilise Mobile Networks to alert local paramedic services in the event of a car accident. The many sensors in the newly manufactured car will detect something out of the ordinary like an air-bag deployment or impact, and contact the local emergency service on a new EU-wide short code (112) with details of vehicle, status, and GPS location. This is intended to speed up emergency first response, and has the potential to save the lives of 2,500 people in the EU per year, and reduce the severity of injury by between 10% to 15%. This sounds like a good combination of technology within things (vehicles manufactured by private industry), networks (private sector mobile), and state services, with a positive outcome for the citizen. That outcome is based on the automation of operations – Operational Technology – rather than the ‘back office’ information technology investment that tends to focus on automation of bureaucracy with a less visible impact for the citizen, and is frequently the subject of adverse publicity for cost over-runs and weak results.

What are the opportunities presented by the Internet of Things?

The ‘Things’ in IoT are not just speaking to other machines or sensing the physical environment. They can monitor intimate aspects of our personal health, as part of the consumer-technology driven quantified self trend. There are few verticals in which the State does not have an interest where there is not an IoT opportunity to improve efficiency and outcomes. In agriculture for instance, Irish company Dairymaster, and their well-named MooMonitor are leading the way globally for automated monitoring of the health and well-being of cows.

A number of years ago I heard eminent futurist Michio Kaku point out that the computing power of the annoying greeting card popular at the time, which played a tinny version of a popular tune when opened, contained more processing power than that of the Allied and Axis powers combined at the end of WW2. What had filled rooms and cost substantial percentages of war budgets to create, cost so little that it was now dropped into a waste basket many times a day after seconds of trivial use. The technology available to the front-line services of the State will become more and more capable of making or supporting decisions as computing cost continues to decline and physical size and consumer price point continues to reduce. If the gaps between these devices and sensors and operational services can be closed, creating a cohesive Internet of Things, the power to interact with the physical world is profound.

What are the challenges facing development of the Internet of Things?

While it is good to focus on the potential of IoT, and to encourage the experts on the front-line to be curious about how it can be directly applied to real world problems, there are challenges as well as opportunities. Privacy and trust are key to success. Open standards go only so far where there are multiple inter-dependent but separate entities required for an end to end operational experience to be effective and secure. The development of a standardised approach is complicated – consider the layer upon layer of digital certificates and encryption emerging in the UK Smart Meter blueprints. How would a medical device be less sensitive than a smart meter? It wouldn’t be. A Homeland Security report concluded 300 medical devices made by 40 companies had unchangeable passwords which could allow someone to login and change critical settings. One plausible outcome was dramatized in the US TV series Homeland where the Vice President is assassinated over the network, his own pacemaker used as a weapon. ‘Smart’ devices are now a target for the construction of botnets, with a refrigerator used as part of a spam attack, according to a Proofpoint report that is analysed in a more measured manner here. Insecure video technology is proliferating in the same way, with tens of thousands of cameras published via a spooky Russian website according to Network World.

In a keynote speech at the 2014 eGovernment conference, Tom Loosemore of UK Government Digital Service included security as a corner of the ‘Square of Despair’ that inhibits Digital Government initiatives, together with lack of budget, poor experience, and procurement restriction.
Government and industry need to break out of this square and take on real problems for the citizen as a priority. Addressing real-world problems and delivering value for citizens could create the impetus necessary to drive IoT adoption and innovation.