“Hurry up and boot up the Zigbee, Ma, we’re gonna watch the toilet!”
The sensor and network people are in a tizzy.
As the story goes, a coming all-things-connected Utopia promises a smörgåsbord of spreadsheets, a feast of fuzzy logic, an Internet so rich with things and pings that our remote control will become our touchpoint with the world and all the stuff in it.
This is the promise and the premise that hypers are calling the Internet of Things: billions of tiny sensors, each with an antenna and an IP address, sharing reams of data that will eventually provide command and control for all things: traffic, parking, water, electricity, and food. And the so-called Big Data that the system will generate will change everything, assuming that access to it lands in the hands of key decision makers. Imagine no traffic jams, ample parking, unlimited and cheap water and energy, and fresh, fast food.
But the Internet of Things story often unravels quickly when you ask a few probing questions:
Take, for example, this recent start-and-stop use of sensors and streaming data:
In the last decade, generous donors concerned with the spread of disease from polluted water gave large sums to construct public restrooms in some of the poorest regions of Uganda. Hundreds of cinder-block, roofed, stalled, and plumbed buildings were built. A few years later, health experts reported that waterborne illnesses were still on the rise, despite the new potties. The gifting agency spent many more millions of dollars to develop a monitoring system and outfitted the restrooms. A sensor counted the number of times the door opened and another counted the number of flushes. The data streamed via satellite uplinks to a private website in the US, where the donors could view the impact of their dollars. A 1:1 ratio (or close to it) might confirm that the buildings were being used for personal hygiene, as intended. A different ratio was reported and suggested that something else was going on. Of course, the sensors could not explain what it was. Reports of tolling and profiteering surfaced in blogs. Suspicious of all sorts of illicit activities, the donors pulled the funding.
It’s important to point out that in this case, connectivity was an afterthought added to check on a system with a myriad of design flaws to start with. Western ideas about public restrooms weren’t going to easily translate in a densely populated, impoverished and desperate place like a slum. But when the “Internet of Things” arrived on the scene like a silent private investigator, it was as a stop-gap auditing measure at best, not a TOOL FOR CHANGE (capitalized for emphasis.) Nothing that the donors learned from the data delivered by their sensor network supported the original goal of improving health and living conditions in the region and driving positive change. Nor was the data precise diagnostically. In fact, the system created more confusion and slowed progress.
We can’t tackle the problem of water pollution in Ugandan slums in this blog. But we can reflect and learn about how and when data and connectivity do some good.
Technology and data are tools for leveraging resources by informing decisions and driving new behavior. You may be thinking that the donors “changed” their donating behaviors with data in hand, and they did. But remember, their initial goal was to improve public health, not to measure flushes. In the end, their remote control investment ended sadly and the spotty data were simply the final nails in the coffin. So we should ask, how could information have helped to design a more culturally-sensitive mechanism for safer personal hygiene in places where it is badly needed? How could information have been used as a stepping-off point for exploration and understanding, to help all the stakeholders agree on better ways to use and protect water systems? Could the so-called Internet of Things have been used as a “tool for change?”
Technology without a resulting beneficial action may be neat and convenient for some, but it isn’t inherently useful. It takes more than a connected sensor to create progress. But when a new and better way of doing things can be envisioned and then implemented by a group, and technology is a good choice to act as a lever, then the model is closer to complete and real value is possible.
So we ask the following basic questions before recommending that a “thing”, like a door or a toilet, be networked and its operations counted or its condition monitored.
1.) Is there a compelling case for collecting the data in the first place? Just because data might become available doesn’t mean that it is necessarily valuable. Data for data’s sake often results in a condition researchers call “data rich, information poor.” It’s critical to identify upfront what will be monitored and its potential value.
While conducting research in the “Smart Grid” market last year, experts told us that many electric utilities are deploying so-called smart meters, knowing full well that the gobs of data that they are collecting may never see the light of day. Sure, storage and servers are cheap, but many data centers have been built to hold something that will never be viewed by a person.
2.) How can the data be collected in the most effective and useful way? For example, can collection also be dissemination? In other words, can the act of collecting also become a teaching moment?
What if the restroom data were collected not by sensors, but by people? Would this result in a different conversation about the use of public restrooms in Ugandan slums? Could this have been a better, more productive use of millions of donated dollars?
3.) Are the data that things produce of importance to more than one person or in more than one way? If they are not, it may not be worth the cost to collect. But if they are, then the system's value will be proportional to the ways that stakeholders use it for something good.
What if, for example, the data from the restroom sensors holds behavioral insights that are more instructive? For example, might we learn about an unregulated market that could be harnessed positively? Should the restrooms have been private to begin with, but with broadly shared ownership?
Here, the key is in the thinking that analysis of the data makes possible. Innovation, including innovation in public health, depends upon people looking at problems and visualizing new ways.
“Data doesn’t make decisions or come up with good ideas: people do”, says Scott Burkina in The Art of Project Management.
Now put the two together: does the study of information about water, waste and disease by Ugandans (along with trusted advisors) reveal a better solution than networked stall doors?
4.) Things don’t care if they’re watched, but do people? In the end, it was not the door and the flush that were being tabulated. It was the person opening the door, and then moving to some other duty, so to speak, and having it counted. So ask if the social value of the data outweighs a person’s squeamishness about the touchy contents. I may perceive that it is in my interest to have my GPS coordinates attached to the photographs I’ll shoot on family vacation and post to Facebook, but honestly technogeeks, I don’t want a sensor on my toilet. Do you? Does anyone? But, I should clarify: I would be open to having information about my water consumption merged with information from other consumers if the combined information could be used to teach or inform all of us. And many of us feel the same way because we want to have water in the future, too.
The Internet of Things has a place, but not as an Internet of Thingamabobs. The Internet is valuable because it offers an exchange of ideas between people, sometimes informed by data gathered by things. But not always.
So will billions of things (other than computers) be connected? That depends on whether the data they might yield has value. And that depends on people benefiting from it by using it to think.
Finally, it should be noted that the transparency and “for the public good” themes in this article do not suggest that there is not commercial value in new and useful data. Many businesses will be created and will profit from listening, collecting, analyzing, and sharing information. The point is that the good ones will have understood the people, their challenges and aspirations, and how insights into patterns like the flow of traffic or water consumption can be used to help those people get more from less.
So the next post in the series will highlight an example of a what we might call the Internet of Useful Things.