Tech Opinion

Monday, 11 January 2016 | MYT 12:04 PM

The Internet of Things is not about the things

Transformative potential: Data can transform an individual's life or a company's operations. — IBM

Transformative potential: Data can transform an individual's life or a company's operations. — IBM

Certain trends, such as ‘wearables’, get a lot of media attention because of their obvious visibility and relevance to the man in the street.

Because of a small electronic bracelet on his wrist, a person can now measure the number of steps he takes in a day, his sleep patterns, his heart rate and a host of other data that always existed but simply didn’t resonate.  

A person might decide to change his lifestyle as a result – perhaps walk more to achieve a target, or go to bed at a certain time to maximise his sleep.

He can measure his progress every day by looking at his wearable device, in the pursuit of better health.

You may think the transformative element is the wearable device, some sleek bracelet he wears on his wrist, but it’s not.  The device is merely a means, the transformative element is data.  

Armed with data, a person can make decisions he could not make before.  He can measure how far he is progressing against his goals, and set new goals as he achieves the old ones, because now, he receives a constant stream of data from the device on his wrist.

Just as data can transform a person’s life by providing information, on a large scale, the same means can change an organisation and the way it works.

All organisations need data – on how well they’re doing, which products are selling better in which markets, on their profit margins, on their resellers, their suppliers and so on.

Most of the time, an organisation has to wait for a period for the data – whether that’s the end of the day when the sales are tallied, or the end of the week for a weekly report, or the end of the year for the accounts to be drawn.

Based on that, an organisation may decide to take certain actions – to change its product mix, to change its selling price, to make changes to its products and services, in order to do better.

Age of sensors: Soil humidity, factory machine vibrations are just two of the things that can be monitored with sensors.— IBM

What if the organisation now received data far more quickly – say, immediately – of exactly what was happening at this very instant?

Just like the wearable measuring the number of steps taken by a person, or his sleep patterns, what if a product could ‘talk’ and send back data about its condition – where it was, where it was heading, what its storage conditions were like, and how long it’s been sitting on the shelf? Self-reporting products and services aren’t a pipe dream, but reality, for just like that wearable device, they are part of that large group of technologies loosely called the Internet of Things, more conveniently abbreviated to “IoT”.  

The IoT can be a completely transformative technology because it can allow an organisation to ‘see’ and understand things that were invisible before.  

Simply put, the IoT is the connectedness of things.  Things – whether a retail product, a piece of machinery, or a condition, such as person’s health – can be measured and reported in real time.

Tiny measuring devices – and there are well over half-a-dozen in your smartphone, and dozens in your car, by the way – can sense various conditions, and connectedness allows them to transmit this data.

Data by itself makes no sense - a temperature is only a number, the number of steps walked is just a number – but in context, data becomes very meaningful – a machine part is overheating, the number of  steps walked is below the desired threshold.

Data doesn’t have to have a human at the other end – there must be few less boring jobs than staring at a constant stream of data – but what if that data could, by itself, make sense?

If the temperature reading went above a certain value, the computer would beep loudly, prod its human operator, or provide feedback to the machine to slow down and cool itself off.  

This is already happening. In the manufacturing industry, downtime of a production line, for example, can be very costly in terms of lost sales or in meeting a deadline.

Sensors constantly monitor machine vibration and temperature, informing their human operators that maintenance is due before a breakdown occurs.

This can be automated, so that instead of informing a human, the data triggers a mechanised control system which takes corrective action – shifting the workload to an alternate line, for example while producing an alert to a technician to investigate the machine before it actually fails.  

In agriculture, soil sensors monitor local soil humidity – the data is fed into a precise drip irrigation system which irrigates according to the soil moisture in each particular location, as compared to traditional flood irrigation which uses far more water, by irrigating field indiscriminately.

Lots and lots of data could also have hidden patterns within – Do sales peak at certain times of the day?

Does factory production vary depending on the day of the week?  Does a staff supervisor calling in sick for the day have an effect on overall productivity? Which colour product sells better on cloudy days compared to sunny days?

Data is often most useful when it is combined with other data to provide fresh and meaningful insights.  

Location data of vehicles can be combined with a map to provide precise location services which could be used in mapping traffic flows in a city, or identifying hotspots of clumped or stalled traffic.  

Further combined with weather data, the emerging picture could be even more useful – if heavy rains are expected, car drivers can be alerted early to avoid certain roads which are known to flood in heavy rain.

Similarly, embedded road sensors can inform of the traffic volume on a stretch of road and average travel times. Combined with other data, such as CCTV data, the cause of slow moving traffic can be
identified – perhaps a car pulled over, or an accident, or other obstruction.

The IoT is a technology that provides near or real time data, the transformation occurs in how that data is used.

Driving patterns of drivers can be monitored in real time – after all, why should a driver who only uses her car a few times a week to drive to the local supermarket pay the same insurance premium a young man who drives often and recklessly?  

Aged patients no longer need to travel to the hospital to have their vital signs read. Remote sensors can monitor their blood sugar level, pulse rate, temperature, blood pressure, even their movement, or lack of movement – in the comfort of their homes.

This can dramatically reduce healthcare and manpower costs, freeing nurses to spend more time with other patients, while reducing travel times and inconvenience for patients.

Users who know their exact electricity consumption at any point in time have been shown to adopt more prudent habits than users who only knows the electricity consumption at the end of the month.  

Smart electric meters, being rolled out in many parts of the world, allow this on-the-spot view.

The IoT is becoming more pervasive, thanks to a number of factors, such as the miniaturisation of technology, always-on connectivity, the continuing decline in the cost of technology and the business need to become more efficient and competitive.  

Reducing cost is just one aspect; the real magic happens when the technology of real-time data from hundreds, thousands, millions of connected objects, changes the way organisations work.  

In Malaysia, Mimos, the Malaysian R&D organization estimates that the economic impact of the technology to be RM9.5bil to the Gross National Income (GNI) by 2020, increasing to RM42.5bil by 2025.

Underlying its importance, in 2015, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) unveiled the National Strategic Roadmap for the Internet of Things.

The IoT is also specifically mentioned in the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020).

Savvy Malaysian CIOs in manufacturing companies have begun to implement systems that make their organisations stronger and leaner.  A Government agency has issued a bid for an early flood-warning system based on a system of sensors, and even CIOs in large banks have begun to explore how this technology can give them a competitive edge.

Various technologies have proven to be massive “disruptors” – one industry after another has been transformed from the brick-and-mortar physicality to online, digital services, and the availability of real-time data from connected devices is only going to accelerate that trend as business entrepreneurs reimagine the future – one where products and services constantly send a stream of data, opening up a world of possibilities.

Lee Yu Kit is a technologist with IBM Malaysia Sdn Bhd.


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