The Internet of Things and the future of data capturing

Today, 9 April 2013, is Internet of Things Day.

The Internet of Things? Yep, I had no idea what it was either, until I did a bit of searching and reading on the subject. It is a rather complex concept, first introduced during a talk in 1999 by British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton. 10 years later in 2009, Ashton wrote a note in RFID Journal explaining in more detail “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing”, as he called it.

The internet of things is about measuring, monitoring and recording of data by computers and other enabled devices (often everyday appliances around us), without human assistance or intervention.(© All Rights Reserved)
The internet of things is about measuring, monitoring and recording of data by computers and other enabled devices (often everyday appliances around us), without human assistance or intervention.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Basically, his idea is that the vast majority of the information contained in the Internet, as we know it, has been captured and created by human beings, “by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code”. People, however, have limited time, and are in many circumstances not that good (in terms of attention, accuracy etc) at capturing data anyway. By getting computers and other machines. without human intervention, to gather and capture information about ‘things’, we would gain access to unthinkably vast sets of information. This will allow us to track and count everything – we will know the status of things, when they need to be replaced, repaired or recalled; whether they’re fresh or past their useful date.

Ashton’s vision is to “empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. RFID and sensor technology enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data.”

Various alternative definitions have been suggested for the Internet of Things (IoT), but as I understand it, in a nutshell, it is a connected network of computers and other smart devices measuring and capturing information about any number of ‘things’ out there. The data collected by this IoT is vast and powerful, and to a large extent still untapped. Closely related concepts include ‘ambient intelligence’ and ‘ubiquitous computing’.

The range of applications of the IoT is massive, including waste management, intelligent shopping, emergency response, home automation and urban planning, to name a few.

Internet of Things Day exists to create increased awareness about the concept, and how it may impact on life as we know it. While I am pretty sure my understanding is still on the dangerous side of rudimentary, I have to admit I find it exciting, scary and just plain daunting in more or less equal measures.

So here’s to an interesting and exciting Internet of Things Day to you and all the machines and devices around you…

Location, location, location (and time) – it’s GIS Day

November 14th is GIS Day, an annual event focusing attention on the field of Geographic Information Systems, its use and potential to impact on our lives.

GIS Day started in 1999 to create an opportunity for people to learn about geography and to discover and explore the benefits of GIS.

Spatially mapping your data enables you to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.
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So what exactly is GIS? According to Esri, one of the leading international developers and vendors in the field of GIS, “A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.”

Or, as Wikipedia puts it: “In the simplest terms, GIS is the merging of cartography, statistical analysis, and database technology.”

Spatially visualising information has many benefits. GIS enables us to map where things are and in what quantities and densities they are distributed. Modern GIS tools also allow us to map and visualise changes in these quantities over time. By seeing how various fields of data are dispersed geographically, and how they are changing, it is often possible to identify trends and relationships that might not otherwise be apparent.

This in turn leads to better decision making and improved communication.

GIS is a pervasive supporting technology throughout all aspects of modern society, with applications in business (banking, retail, etc), law enforcement, health, transportation, environmental systems, conservation, agriculture, forestry, mining, telecommunications, utilities management, research and education.

Capturing spatio-temporal location is key to GIS.
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A GIS can typically employ and integrate data from a huge range of sources, as long as it has some key through which to relate it to the other data in the system. This key is spatio-temporal location – you need to know the location and time represented by the data. To map climate change, for example, you would include information on temperature and rainfall. But just having a list of temperatures and rainfall figures means nothing – to make it useful, you need some indicator of where and when each value was measured.

By promoting an understanding of this simple basic concept – that you massively increase the value and usefulness of any set of data by recording and including the spatio-temporal location of each data item – time and money spent on data collecting efforts can be leveraged so much more effectively.

Are you involved in data collection? Know someone who is? Even if space and time appear unimportant, record it anyway. Who knows – you may just discover something no-one’s thought of before…

Information overload, social media and the Internet

Today is Information Overload Awareness Day, the day attention is focused on the crazy state of information overload existing in the world, thanks to ‘the Internet’ (a concept that is becoming more abstract and hazy by the day), social media, blogging, cloud computing, you name it.

And, by writing this blog entry about it, I am of course adding yet another drop to the ocean of information, contributing knowlingly to the ever rising levels of useful and useless information that is threatening to engulf every remaining bit of ‘dry land’ of the world.

It was estimated as long ago as 2008 that information overload is costing the US economy around $900 billion a year, through lowered employee productivity. When numbers get that big, I’m always unsure what they’re called – that’s almost $1 trillion, right? And that number is probably a lot higher by now. The average ‘knowledge worker’ (itself a term that didn’t really exist before the unbounded proliferation of data and information) is said to spend at least 50% of his day ‘managing information’ – sifting through emails, finding and validating ‘facts’, etc. And that is just the productive side of things – even more time is spent lost in the bottomless depths of facebook, twitter, youtube and the like.

If you can’t beat them, overload them…
While we complain about information overload, we all contribute to the problem – me possibly more than many. But at the same time, social media can be an important and effective tool for marketing and communication. I guess it will always be a careful balancing act between too much and too little.
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The sad thing, of course, is that among the dirt there are some real diamonds. There are blogs and opinion pieces, both online and in print, that I try to read on a regular basis, and that I really feel poorer for not having read for a few days due to some work deadline or other crisis. But finding these among the thousands upon thousands of blog posts generated daily can be a real challenge. Even just trying to keep up with WordPress’ daily Freshly Pressed list is an almost impossible task.

I’m sure no amount of awareness creation about the problem of information overload is going to change things – we have gotten too used to having pages upon pages of information on any and every topic we can possibly think of, at our fingertips. And in many ways it’s good. There’s no way I would have been able to do this blog if there wasn’t all kinds of arbitrary facts floating around to tap into. But at the same time, I guess the responsible thing to do is to at least try and limit the amount of data we push out on a daily basis. Which is one of the reasons I prefer blogging to twitter, for example – in compiling a blog post, I like to believe people at least invest a little thought. Tweeting is just too easy and immediate, resulting in the masses mindlessly excreting an ever-growing pile of data-dung (my personal view, of course).

On the topic of excrement – when did Facebook change from being a place where people actually sort-of talked to each other, to a platform where all people do all day are to share ‘cute’ photos and cartoons, and resend arbitrary ‘amusing’ status updates? Facebook used to be a platform I found quite useful to keep in touch with friends and family when we moved to another country, but over the last couple of years the signal to noise ratio has fallen so low that it is hardly worth facebooking anymore.

Oh well…  There I go – one rant about information overload, and I’ve contributed a few hundred more words to the problem.  I think for the rest of this Information Overload Awareness Day I should just switch off all computers, smartphones, TVs and radios, and go mow the lawn or something.