Navigating your way through a large and bustling metropolis such as New York City can be a daunting prospect. Even for born-and-bred New Yorkers, the sheer deluge of information they see can make it easy to miss important messages, be they regarding free vaccinations or upcoming concerts from favourite performers.
But now the city of New York is seeking to help its citizens by talking to them directly. Its mouthpiece: 250 Internet-connected smart signs, each equipped with an interactive touch display, Wi-Fi hot spot, and the ability to communicate directly with the mobile phones of people in their immediate vicinity.
The project is being deployed across New York City by City24/7, and is the culmination of a five-year project to find better ways of getting information to citizens.
“We’re trying to help cities communicate with their citizens a little better and turn it into an ongoing conversation,” says City24/7’s president and chief executive officer, Tom Touchet. “As you walk through a city, you can learn and give feedback to the city about everything that is cool in and around various neighbourhoods.”
Working in conjunction with equipment supplier Cisco, City24/7 has deployed 50 of the 250 interactive devices on screen enclosures, in public building entrances, in small businesses, and on relevant street furniture. The remainder will be installed in the next four to five months.
As well as making information available through the touch screen, citizens can download a free City App and opt in to a messaging service where they can select the information they wish to receive, ranging from urgent notifications through to free city programs or advertisements from local businesses. Messages are sent to devices via Bluetooth when they come in range of a sign.
And the benefits have flowed both ways. “What the city is getting back is a pretty strong response for some of its public health campaigns, and a strong response on transit information,” says Touchet. “A couple of volunteer programs have also really ‘popped’.
“And there has been great feedback for some events that maybe people didn’t know about before they walked by some of the signs.
“People will opt in when you give them something of value. They don’t want spam, but if you know they are taking the exact same bus or subway every day, and you can trigger a beacon to tell them how far away it is, they will opt in for it, and then use it to access the city’s events and other pieces of information.”
For the citizens of New York City, the City24/7 project is a new means to interact with their urban environment. For the City24/7 and Cisco, it is an early demonstrator of the potential benefit of the Internet of Things (IoT).
It is a concept that has been getting a lot of press of late, in part due to claims like Cisco’s suggesting the number of connected devices will reach 6.5 times the world’s population by 2020. For suppliers, that represents an opportunity Cisco estimates will grow from a US$121 billion (AU$130.3 billion) today to US$948 billion by 2020.
Touchet sees it as something more fundamental. “We like to say that the Internet gave everyone a voice,” he says. “The Internet of Things will allow a conversation, where cities and citizens communicate about all the cool things there are to discover.”
But it is not just human signals being connected via the Internet of Things. The plummeting cost of computer hardware and radio technology has led to a proliferation of cheap sensors and other devices, which form the end points of the IoT.
Connected home appliances are one of the most obvious manifestations. Research company, Telsyte, has estimated the Australian home automation market generated $105 million in sales in 2013, and will exceed $917 million by 2017.
The range of connected devices is staggering, with the Sydney-based start-up, Moore’s Cloud, even releasing a string of smartphone-controlled Christmas lights in late 2013, selling at $199.
Connected medical devices are also proving to be big business for the Internet of Things, with US-based Transparency Market Research predicting that market will reach US$33.5 billion by 2019.
Even personal activity tracking devices such as the FitBit, Jawbone UP and Nike Fuelband have proven to be a massive opportunity for their makers, with NDP Group estimating that market alone was worth US$330 million in 2013.
With the Raspberry Pi project now selling card-sized computers for US$25, and projects based on the open source electronics platform proliferating, it has become economical to embed intelligence into almost any device, including an increasing range of low-cost sensors.
That means that among the strange signals you can hear on the Internet, you can even hear the beating of an oyster’s heart, if you know where to listen.
Oysters are just one group of living creatures connected up to Sense T, a data collection and analysis project being run by the University of Tasmania, CSIRO and associated parties across Tasmania. Biotags connected to living oysters provide data that helps farmers make better decisions regarding their management.
But Sense T is much bigger than just oyster farms. It is gathering and analysing data from a range of sensors across Tasmania’s 68,000 square kilometres and using this to help industries including beef and dairy production, viticulture and water management.
At its heart, Sense T is all about taking data from sensors and turning it into intelligence that benefits Tasmanian agriculture. And that means gathering data from many different things – including oysters. For these reasons, Sense T represents Australia’s most complete manifestation of the IoT.
Sense T director, Ros Harvey, says the project is an opportunity to deliver thousands of dollars in savings to Tasmanian farmers, while boosting the value of their products and improving the management of precious resources.
“We’re now looking at pre-commercial trials of large-scale rollouts of end-to-end solutions, from the hardware to the ingestion of data into a repository, through to the user experience,” Harvey says. “We are just in a process of rolling that out across 25 different agricultural businesses across Tasmania.”
While agriculture as a whole is big business, the majority of commercial organisations involved in Sense T are small. Harvey says the involvement of smaller businesses is vital to the future of the IoT and its potential contribution to Australian productivity, as small and medium enterprises make up 96 per cent of businesses and employ 63 per cent of Australians.
“If the Internet of everything is going to deliver on its promise, we have to make sure that we are designing and architecting so that those very small and medium enterprises have access and can create value from data,” Harvey says.
Funding has been allocated for a second phase of the project, which will see Sense T working with industry partners to scope projects ranging from real-time freight and logistics optimisation through to extending some of the agriculture and aquaculture project work.
Harvey says Sense T is also looking at new ways data being gathered is used. An example is building brand equity for producers by helping them create detailed stories about food origins and quality, and even through the creation of new financial instruments such as environmental bonds.
“We are trying to explore how you create different use cases out of the same data to create value for the end user in different ways,” Harvey says. “If all we do is use sensor technology and connect people and devices and squeeze more value out of that data through improved productivity, there is value in that. But the real uplift comes when you don’t have to collect new data every time you want to answer a new problem.
“If you have data and repurpose if for different use cases, that creates value for people.”
The success of Sense T has led to approaches from agriculture companies around Australia. One of these is the Government of South Australia, which is running its own sensor project, Sensed, within its SA Connected strategy.
CIO for the South Australia Government, Bret Morris, says he is keen to examine what Sense T has achieved, and how outputs of such projects might be aligned with SA’s open data strategy to create value for the community.
“There are all these technologies out there now that enable you to capture climate and a whole range of environmental data, and you can marry that up with trend and historical data around weather and wind directions,” he says.
Morris postulates the outcome of marrying wind and particle sensor data with historical data might be a system for more accurately modelling the movement of airborne contaminates. “We could start to sense pollutants, or maximise water usage,” he says. “These sensors start to provide the capability to capture things we never even contemplated.”
Another example might arise from opening access to data from sensors embedded in the state’s road network.
“We have all of this great data about traffic movement, and we might be looking at it from the perspective of how do we better cycle the times of the traffic lights,” Morris says. “But a transport company might ask ‘what is the most efficient way to move trucks through the grid?’ All of a sudden you can do some really interesting hot spot analysis around traffic.”
Critical to any such outcome is the ability to first gather, then disseminate the data. “We recognise the power of opening up data and letting people look at it through different lenses,” Morris says. “We’re just starting what is a very interesting story.”
Next up: Ducks in order
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