Ah, the Internet of Things. It’s the topic on everyone’s lips – the buzzword of the year. It promises to transform the way we live and work, to free us from mundane tasks, and create entirely new jobs in entirely new industries.
Ask anyone in technology to explain the IoT and they’ll probably use words like sensors, big data and networks, and tell you how, together, these produce real-time insights and business intelligence.
No wonder the man on the street isn’t as excited about the IoT as those in the industry are. For something that is expected to have massive impacts on the lives of every person on the planet, the IoT should be easier to understand.
Demystifying the IoT
The high-level definition of the IoT is a collection of sensors that feed information into a database to make sense of things.
That’s not the most user-friendly explanation.
Let’s rather think of the IoT as a human body – we’ll call him John.
John’s central nervous system is the database and his senses (sight, smell, touch, etc) are, well, the sensors.
When information enters John’s nervous system (database) through his senses (sensors), he interprets it immediately and responds accordingly – he pulls his hand away from a hot stove; he sidesteps an uncovered manhole; he turns down the volume on the TV if it’s too loud.
The heat from the plate, the sight of the open manhole, and the TV volume is all data, which John analyses in real-time, allowing him to make instant decisions. He uses this information to protect himself by predicting outcomes before they occur – like falling into the manhole and seriously injuring himself.
Making businesses smarter
This is, in essence, how the IoT works.
Businesses in any vertical can monitor and analyse just about any variable. This analysis allows them to make better business decisions in response to changing conditions, in real time. They can also predict what is likely to happen in the future and put measures in place to protect themselves from financial loss or to better position themselves to leverage future opportunities.
These decisions – or business intelligence – keep them ahead of their competitors, help them save time and money through unnecessary downtime, and ensure their systems always perform optimally.
Let’s consider some of the variables a courier company – we’ll call it ABCDeliveries – might monitor. By monitoring traffic patterns through apps like Waze, GPS data and traffic light sensors, ABCDeliveries can calculate the fastest route between destinations, saving it time on the road and allowing it to complete more deliveries in a day, which equates to more revenue. By monitoring the weather, ABCDeliveries will know when to move packages undercover to prevent damage from rain or hail, saving it money in insurance claims.
A key aspect of the IoT is that big data is time-stamped. Traffic information from yesterday is useless to ABCDeliveries today. It needs to know what is happening right now so that it can react appropriately.
Humans as sensors
Thousands of South Africans use the IoT every day, possibly without realising it. Anyone who travels with the Waze navigation app is essentially part of a bigger IoT ecosystem.
Users opt in to share their movements and to report road hazards, faulty traffic lights and police sightings, meaning they are, essentially, the sensors that submit data – of John’s senses. This information is disseminated to other Waze users travelling on the same route.
If 20 people give a hazard report a thumbs up, it’s likely still there. If 10 give it a thumbs down, it’s probably not and Waze will remove it from the hazard list. That’s a big data decision made in real time in response to data coming in from thousands of sensors.
The effects? People are able to avoid congested roads and discover new routes that get them to work faster. Imagine how much simpler our lives will be when we can look inside our fridges from our phones while doing grocery shopping, or when we can turn on the heaters from work to arrive to a warm home in winter?
There is not a single vertical that will not benefit from the IoT, but we first need to understand how it works so that we can get more people excited about it – and more people developing for it – so we can all realise these benefits sooner.