Harnessing the Internet of Everything to Serve the Public Good

September 3, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service
internet of things

Thanks to sensor-based objects, big data is getting bigger, and that presents opportunities — and considerations — for government organizations.

Picture this: It’s a sunny summer’s day a few years from now, plants are in full bloom, and you’re strolling through a major city park. Unfortunately, your eyes are watering as the itchy beginnings of a pollen-induced allergy attack begin to compromise the experience.

Pulling out your phone, you consult a data visualization showing the park’s hour-by-hour pollen count densities. You then choose a new path, one with different vegetation and lighter pollen counts, and go about your way, barely noticing the egg-shaped nodes in the canopy monitoring everything from pollen to air quality to foot-traffic trends.

Welcome to the Internet of Everything, city edition.  

What Is the Internet of Everything?

For those unfamiliar, the Internet of Everything, also called the Internet of Things or IoT, describes the expanding network of digitally connected, sensor-equipped objects — from submersible water-quality sensors to heartbeat-tracking workout shirts — that collect data and communicate it somewhere else.

The IoT isn’t a new concept (the term was first coined in 1999), but the rise of cloud computing, which allows for greater data storage, as well as increased consumer-focused sensory-data devices (think Google Glass and Jawbone fitness trackers) have certainly helped widen its reach.

With the IoT’s expansion comes data — lots of data. Statistics vary, but network provider Cisco Systems puts the current number of sensory-connected objects at nearly 15 billion, with a projection of about 50 billion in 2020. Cisco also projects that these devices will contribute astronomically to the global Digital Universe (the yearly amount of digital data created, collected, and shared) in the next few years.

Private enterprise is a major part of the equation, of course, and tech blogs are filled with intriguing new objects designed to sense the world around them and digitally process data for your personal benefit — available data-interactive objects now include everything from barbecues and bathroom scales.

IoT Data Is a Natural Fit for Governments

But it’s actually the public sphere that’s been one of the real IoT innovators for some time, says Ben McInnis, product director at Socrata.

“For the most part, governments have been leading the charge for several reasons, one of which is that an obvious early IoT use case has revolved around infrastructure and transportation, which are government areas,” he explains.

In other words, tapping into, and especially generating, IoT data streams is a natural fit for larger municipal governments who not only have the fiscal resources needed to put IoT data to work, they have an innate motivator: improving citizens’ lives.

Consider Chicago’s Array of Things project, an experimental network of modular sensor boxes installed around the city’s core. Think of it as an urban fitness-data tracker: The nodes collect real-time data on the city’s environment and infrastructure for research and public use, with the first units focusing on atmosphere, air quality, and environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and light.

From this data alone, the potential applications are exciting, such as using air, sound, and vibration data to monitor vehicle traffic, or infrared sensors to measure street temperature to guide salting responses during winter storms. The thinkers behind Array of Things can even envision a downtown where street lamp poles alert pedestrians to icy sidewalk patches and apps guide people to safe nocturnal walking routes.

This is all cool stuff, but “outcome” is the key word here, says McInnis, who recommends a bottom-up approach when assessing IoT opportunities. Instead of worrying whether you currently possess the technical infrastructure to harness IoT data, he says, first determine what you want to achieve, be it water quality monitoring or winter sidewalk safety, and then work from there — you may even already have IoT data streams that can be redeployed.

And as cities like Chicago are demonstrating, the Internet of Things not only has the potential to reshape how municipalities can harness a world of increasing object-driven data; it’s helping reshape how cities think about the nature of usable data.

In other words, all these new IoT data streams are actually like water, a natural resource. And just as water flows from many sources, government IoT data can also be collected, channeled, and processed like any utility — and serve as a powerful public good. 

Prepping for the IoT Age

With increased data expected from an expanding IoT-driven world, it can be easy to start worrying about bandwidth needs and technical infrastructure. Not to worry — IoT preparation is really an exercise in careful thinking:

  1. First, focus on outcomes: It can be tempting to think top-down — that your city needs to start placing sensors everywhere. But one way to approach things is to first identify what you wish to accomplish, such as improving water quality or increasing parks safety. If IoT data can get you there, then explore the appropriate infrastructure needed to achieve those outcomes.
  2. Analyze what you already have: Chances are your organization is already part of the IoT universe. It could be decade-old sensors monitoring water quality or geo-tracking of public buses. Take stock of all your current sensor-driven data streams.
  3. Re-operationalize your streams: Once you’ve got a handle on your organization’s sensory data streams, look for ways to fuse them for redeployment to achieve a desired outcome (solutions such as Socrata Pulse can help).
  4. Understand the issues: Many municipal IoT issues remain unresolved, so it helps to formulate policies. Consider security: with device monitoring, public concerns can arise as to how data is being used. And if IoT data will feed your wider open data commitment, decide which to make open and which requires more thought, such as data that could put law enforcement in danger.


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