Beyond The Internet Of Things Towards A Sensor Commons

from the imagine-the-possibilities dept

Already it’s clear that one of the hot tech topics of 2012 will be “The Internet of Things” ? the idea that even the most mundane objects will be hooked up to the Net and communicating over it. So far, pundits have concentrated on trivial applications like being able to check your fridge’s contents from a browser, but potentially it could be much more than that if the “things” are groups of sensors whose data can be usefully aggregated.

Just what might be possible is hinted at in this fascinating post by Andrew Fisher, entitled “Towards a sensor commons“:

For me the Sensor Commons is a future state whereby we have data available to us, in real time, from a multitude of sensors that are relatively similar in design and method of data acquisition and that data is freely available whether as a data set or by API to use in whatever fashion they like.

My definition is not just about ?lots of data from lots of sensors? ? there is a subtlety to it implied by the ?relatively similar in design and method of data acquisition? statement.

In order to be useful, we need to ensure we can compare data relatively faithfully across multiple sensors. This doesn?t need to be perfect, nor do they all need to be calibrated together, we simply need to ensure that they are ?more or less? recording the same thing with similar levels of precision and consistency. Ultimately in a lot of instances we care about trended data rather than individual points so this isn?t a big problem so long as an individual sensor is relatively consistent and there isn?t ridiculous variation between sensors if they were put in the same conditions.

What this boils down to, then, is trends in freely-available real-time data from multiple sensors: it’s about being able to watch the world change across some geographical area of interest — even a small one — and drawing conclusions from those changes. That’s clearly a huge step up from checking what’s in your fridge, and potentially has major political ramifications (unlike the contents of your fridge).

The bulk of the post explores what Fisher sees as the key requirements for a sensor commons, which must:

  • Gain trust
  • Become dispersible
  • Be highly visible
  • Be entirely open
  • Be upgradeable

Each of these is explored at some length, with always interesting and sometimes surprising insights and comments — I urge you to read the whole thing.

Fisher concludes as follows:

The access we are getting to cheap, reliable, malleable technologies such as Arduino [open hardware boards] and Xbee [wireless modules] coupled with ubiquitous networks whether WiFi or Cellular is creating an opportunity for us to be able to understand our local environments better. Going are the days where we needed to petition councillors to do some water testing in our creeks and waterways or measure the quality of the air that we are breathing.

The deployment of these community oriented technologies will create the Sensor Commons; providing us with data that becomes available and accessible to anyone with an interest. Policy creation and stewardship will pass back to the local communities ? as it should be ? who will have the data to back up their decisions and create strong actions as a result.

As that final “strong actions” hints, this is not your parents’ Internet of Things.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+

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Comments on “Beyond The Internet Of Things Towards A Sensor Commons”

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Re: Re: Re: Re:

“.right up to the point where it saves your life.”

Not necessarily. I can think of many, many situations where I gladly take an enhanced risk of injury or death in exchange for enhanced privacy. It’s a cost/benefit thing.

But the rest of your comment is, sadly, spot on. And anybody who wants to avoid constant scrutiny and risk of eavesdropping & active surveillance should not carry a cell phone, smart or otherwise.


Re: Re:

You should really read the ‘Gaining Trust’ section of the actual article. Basically it suggests treating data like nuclear material. You have to account for all of it end-to-end, what you’re doing with it at every step in the process, and dispose of it properly when you’re finished or there can be no trust. If a project actually did those things and did them in a way that was verifiable and lasting and not just some cheep promise that’s out the window with the next administration or investor I don’t think it would be all that scary.


why is a fridge that can tell you whats in it such a bad thing? I think it would be awesome. stick an ip address on the thing and a low temp camera you would really only need shots from the front (3-D compilations from multiple directions and combined in a skyrim-like interface on a smart phone app would be cool but not neccesary) build an smart phone app to tie it all together, patent and wait to sue samsung. I wonder if anyone is working on a mod to do this I would image so. amazon has the app where you can take pictures of things and have them be identified for some backwards functionality imagine taking a picture of a gallon of milk at the grocery store and having your phone tell you whether or not it identifies a gallon in the fridge.


Re: Re: Re: Re:

i would think at least in the fridge instance the compressor would be a much more inefficient use of electricity than something running off 5 volts dc that can sleep most of the time. we are already running the data infrastructure a few more packets versus running your gas compression coolant system for 5 minutes to bring the temps back down might be worth it. plus a lot of the time your refrigerator isn’t available for you to check whats in it. life everything its convenience vs privacy and the only thing that trumps both is knowedge


Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

i would think at least in the fridge instance the compressor would be a much more inefficient use of electricity than something running off 5 volts dc that can sleep most of the time.

Nevermind the fact that many of the sensor buses draw 5v at microwatts to run whole clusters of sensors and the sensors themselves draw minuscule power from this bus. I have weather sensors that run 30-40 sensors off of a single station that pumps the data to a server which stores the data and makes it available for display, and that station/sensor cluster uses less wattage than my DVR. Even with 13v power for the barometer (which often isn’t needed) I am still using far less power than the refrigerator. 1-wire for the win!


Re: Seeing inside your fridge

Just imagine. The real usefulmess of this technology is when you can aggregate the refrigerator data over large numbers of consumers.

Marketers can determine that Addict-o-treats are 59% more popular than Yuk-O brand.

The government department of What’s Good For You can also re-educate people who eat non-approved foods, or in non-approved amounts.

In case of a famine, the government department of What’s Good for the 1% can know who is hoarding food in quantities greater than necessary for a starvation diet.


Re: Re: Re: Seeing inside your fridge

you can make the same basic argument for pretty much every piece of technology since the wheel. It would be much easier to track sales at the supermarket/retail level which is already done what do you think that mvp card it for, than having to implement a system that incorporates tracking every end user.


Re: Re:

“why is a fridge that can tell you whats in it such a bad thing?”

It’s not, so long as it’s only telling me. If it’s also telling the fridge manufacturer, my local grocery stores, any advertising agencies (including Google) or any other entity without my express permission, then it’s a bad thing.


A very vague “vision” of the future based on something that might be technically possible (not convinced), but it clearly won’t be possible for other reasons:
* Someone will need to pay for it (not the government because that would be “socialism”)
* Punters won’t pay for it unless they know how to use it and what for.
* Businesses have already learned to jump onto this kind of thing early and establish control, rather than let the public have unconstrained access.

A company like Apple may be able to collect and “interpret” the data, use it to control their congregation and pay for the privilege, but is that a good thing ?

John Doesays:

For certain applications I like it

I like the idea of air and water monitors. Use it for weather stations and to detect/predict earthquakes. All good stuff. But use it to monitor my electric usage (or any other usage) and I will have to say no. The first step to control is monitoring and we cannot let them get their foot in the door.

John Doesays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: For certain applications I like it

The smart grid is the first step to control. I don’t need controlled, I can take care of myself. I had a 1560 sq ft house that was costing me $220 per month with gas and electric. I built a 3360 sq ft home with LOW-E windows, a SEER 15 heat pump and I use all CFL bulbs and cut my bill to $100 per month. Of course it is up to $150 now after several rate hikes by the electric company. But my usage has change little. There is little else I can do to conserve energy at this point so I don’t need monitored and controlled.


Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: For certain applications I like it

The smart grid is the first step to control. I don’t need controlled, I can take care of myself.

How does the power company charge you for electricity if they don’t already monitor your usage?

Seems like you already let them in the door. Only way to fix that is to get off the grid entirely — which will require several forms of power generation (solar for daytime, hydrogen fuel cell or other methods for cloudy days/at night,) and then monitor and control the use yourself.

I don’t care as much — I’ll happily use the power grid as a battery until the power company starts complaining that I am not drawing enough power from them and getting too much from other sources (which of course, will require me to get power from other sources — which I am working on.)


Garbage in, garbage out

This is a nice, warm, fuzzy idea with very little scientific (or engineering) rigor behind it. It will not achieve what is intended.

Now, I am as much a geek as anyone, and love to play with massive amounts of data to do cross-correlations and time series and derive neat-o prediction schemes and link cause to effect….. But before I can do that, I really need to have accurate data. Otherwise, I might as well make up my own data. What this idea will generate is massive amounts of data that can’t be correlated to the same axes.

If you want to compare data from several different sensors, then the sensors MUST be calibrated to a common standard. AND the relative accuracy of each sensor must be known.

Something that is almost always ignored by those outside of the instrumentation and control field is that each data point has two parts: a measurement and an accuracy: x +/- y. Without both pieces of the datum, it is worthless. It is only good enough to produce Congressional budgets.

So here is my analysis of this wishful thinking:

“In order to be useful, we need to ensure we can compare data relatively faithfully across multiple sensors.”


“This doesn?t need to be perfect, nor do they all need to be calibrated together, we simply need to ensure that they are ?more or less? recording the same thing with similar levels of precision and consistency.”

False. The author is using “perfect” in terms of “better than I need to play around with it”, instead of its real (and unattainable) meaning of having no error. In fact, since there is no accuracy linked with each datum, it is assumed to be perfect.
When he says that the sensors need to be “more or less”, then he is vaguely sensing that there needs to be an accuracy attached somewhere. See? Common sense is innate, just not being used here.

“Ultimately in a lot of instances we care about trended data rather than individual points so this isn?t a big problem so long as an individual sensor is relatively consistent and there isn?t ridiculous variation between sensors if they were put in the same conditions.”

False. This is just pure wishful thinking. Without the accuracy data, you can only trend data from each sensor. You will not be able to do any meaningful trending between groups of sensors and their associated data. Without calibration results and sensor accuracy information, the data is not “apples to apples”.

If you don’t know what you are doing, then you come up with statements like these that will start people out on the primrose path. The whole exercise will be wasted effort, or worse, bad data bringing bad decisions, unless it follows standard (and boring) practice from past instrumentation lessons learned the hard way.

I would like to point out that the lessons learned the hard way usually involved massive destruction. When I worked in the instrumentation field around 1980, the petrochemical industry blew up a plant every year. Or was it two a year? And blow up doesn’t mean localized damage in one part of the plant, it means a plant completely leveled. I remember one plastics company sending their design team to our Engineering Center after completely leveling their plant. They sent 25 people. We had talked them down from 75. They were extremely concerned that it not happen again.

Good decisions start with good data. Good data comes from good design. Good design takes into account how to correlate the data between different measurements. Talk to some of those who have made the mistakes already. It will save a lot of grief farther on down the road.


Gerald Robinsonsays:

The results will likly be dissasterious

An interesting book America the Vulnerable by points out how the government will take over and limit access to general purpose computing. This will also follow with any deices on the ‘net. So you may pay for a computer, but you will have no real access or control over either the computer or data.

This being the case why should I pay for something that the government (incompetent as it is) gets to use but I get no benefit from?

Gene Cavanaughsays:


I am unclear on why we as a society continually see local communities as some sort of answer!
As much as I believe the author is on the right track, it always makes better sense for the “community” to be as large as possible, since then the resources needed for high quality are not an undue burden on the individual. So, allowing the public to view the output, fine; administering such things at the local level? Grow up!

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