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…

Wikipedia, collaborative, free and up to date since 2001

15 January; this is the date in 2001 when Wikipedia was launched – the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, and one of those amazing phenomena of the online era that have fundamentally changed the way we interact with information.

Searching Wikipedia - a daily activity for millions of Internet users.(© All Rights Reserved)
Searching Wikipedia – a daily activity for millions of Internet users.
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The creators of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, came up with the name as a combination of a ‘wiki’ (a type of collaborative website) and ‘encyclopedia’ – thus succintly describing the way the site operates. Essentially a very simple concept, Wikipedia is described as “a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.” From its humble beginnings a little more than a decade ago, Wikipedia has grown to an online encyclopedia containing 24 million articles in 285 languages (including over 4.1 million in the English Wikipedia) – all created collaboratively by about 100 000 contributors from around the world.

And popular it is – with over 35 million readers, and more than 2.5 billion page views per month from the US alone.

While the open, collaborative model behind Wikipedia holds many advantages – range of content, speed of update, etc – the non-expert, non-academic profile of much of the contributor base has raised some criticism, including questions about the accuracy and quality of some of its the content. While these concerns are valid, and there is no doubt some questionable content on Wikipedia, the way the information is presented tends to be very open, and non-verified information are usually flagged as such. As long as you realise that you are, in fact, dealing with a non-verified source, the level of information available via the platform really is staggering. And the self-regulatory action of the Wikipedia community does tend to lead to content that is, in the majority of cases, surprisingly well verified by experts in the relevant fields.

In fact, a 2005 investigation in Nature magazine showed that most of the content in Wikipedia come very close to the level of accuracy of an accepted reference work such as Encyclopædia Britannica.

So, whether or not you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, there’s no denying that it is an incredibly broad and up-to-date source of information on just about any topic you can imagine.  And that’s impressive, no matter how you look at it.

Keeping your digital belongings secure on Computer Security Day

Today, 30 November, is Computer Security Day. The day, started in 1988, was initiated to raise awareness about computer security issues and to remind people to protect their computers and digital information.

I have to admit that I am no expert on this, but I do know that the subject is more or less as big as you care to make it – from ensuring that you have basic virus or mallware protection in place, all the way to going to great lengths to ensure that your ‘digital footprint’ is as small as possible, out of fear of online personality theft or some similarly sinister conspiracy theory. I definitely lean somewhat towards the relaxed side of the scale – I guess simply maintaining a blog and having a Facebook presence is already enough to have the extreme paranoids running screaming to the hills.

Do what you can to keep your precious data safe and secure.
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Whatever your level of computer security awareness, there are some basic things we should all do – doing fairly regular backups, keeping your computer environment physically safe (locked up when you’re not around), clean and free of excess dust, pet hair etc, using unique, and non-obvious, passwords for your different online accounts, and not opening suspect emails or visiting dubious websites. (Sorry, but you didn’t win that million dollar lottery that you cannot remember entering, and that pastor trying to share his fortunes with you is not real either.)

Of course these days computer security no longer only applies to your home computer and/or laptop, but digital tablets and smart phones as well. In this age of being always connected and always online, I guess we should spend more time thinking about the topic than we typically do.

And perhaps Computer Security Day is just the day to get get us off our behinds and kick us into action.

One-click shopping on Cyber Monday

A few days ago I chatted about the virtues of cutting back on buying and spending – an approach that was promoted on Buy Nothing Day, last Friday. The reason for Buy Nothing Day being celebrated this time of year is that we are in the middle of one of the craziest shopping periods of the year – in the US and Canada in particular, Thanksgiving weekend is a time that puts big smiles on retailers’ faces.

Today is no exception, as we celebrate a day of shopping frenzy that has come to be known as Cyber Monday – one of the top online shopping days in the US, and many other parts of the world.

Online shopping – makes parting with your money easier than ever before.
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As reported in the New York Times in 2005, “The name Cyber Monday grew out of the observation that millions of otherwise productive working Americans, fresh off a Thanksgiving weekend of window shopping, were returning to high-speed Internet connections at work Monday and buying what they liked.” Besides the explanation given by the NYT, the fact is also that this is the time of year – one month before Christmas – when retailers seriously step up their relentless barrage of sales and promotions, reaching fever pitch towards the second half of December.

The term Cyber Monday was first coined in 2005 by online shopping community Shop.org, based on research from the previous year, during which they noticed that the period after Thanksgiving showed a clear spike in online shopping. Since 2010 the day has consistently counted as one of the $1+ billion online shopping days in the US. The day has become so popular with online shoppers the world over that many employers are actively curbing their employees’ non-work related online activities on this day.

What struck me when I read up about Cyber Monday, is how new online shopping really still is (less than 20 years ago, the concept was still largely non-existent) yet how entrenched it has become as part of our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a world without amazon.com, without ebay, without itunes. It is estimated that by 2015 the online shopping industry will be worth a whopping $279 billion in the US and €134 billion in Europe.

If you’re into shopping, and looking for a bargain, today may be just the day for you to go trawling the online shopping sites. Just don’t complain when you end up buying a whole bunch of extra stuff you never planned on, pushing your budget into a state of emergency. Retailers are ruthless in their quest to make the poor consumer part with his money, and the online sector is, if possible, even more so. The most dangerous part of online shopping is that you never physically part with your money – its just a click here and a click there, and suddenly your bank balance looks a lot less healthy.

I still maintain that the best thing to do during the two months between mid-November and mid-January is to stay as far away from the shops as you can, and to rather spend time being creative – homemade gifts and goods are so much more special than yet another shop-bought special offer.

You may indeed get some real specials this time of year, but I can guarantee that you will also spend a lot more than you planned…

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.