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Friday 20 December 2013

The networks of things

Usman Haque Usman Haque

Connecting devices to the Internet has been an interest of many, for years – whether through a direct IP connection, or just to see what's going on. From the early success of the Cambridge coffee pot right up to the Nike Fuelband and the Nest smoke alarm, the Internet of Things has had a long and quite complex history. Giving the future a clearer path is Thingful, a new project from Usman Haque of Umbrellium.

Thingful is a "navigator for the world of the Internet of Things". It provides full information on where data-emitting devices are located, the types of data which they emit, and the online conversations built around them. From cargo vessels to radiation monitors, the site provides a map-fronted way to find and interact with them.

It's the first major public release from Umbrellium, a company founded earlier this year to deliver tools and products to facilitate and build the engagement of citizens within their local environments. The founder of Umbrellium is Usman Haque, who many will know from his work as the founder of early sensor data site Pachube.

Pachube was a platform which allowed people to store and share data coming from radiation monitors, air quality monitors, energy monitors, and the like – objects which early adopters and enthusiasts were starting to put online, to which the site became a repository to share this data. Pachube was acquired by LogMeIn and became Xively, which now sports the rather fashionable slogan of “Your public cloud for the Internet of Things”.

With many data infrastructures now available to the public, a publicly available and editable interface is needed more than ever. Previously, there wasn't a really easy way to search for them, and you can't (currently) ask Google for the location of your nearest air quality monitor. Ergo, Thingful aims to solve a problem of where to actually find “things” which give out data, and what types of data are emitted, and who has installed them.


Devices and data points currently registered to Thingful across Europe

If the growth of small data-emitting devices is like a thousand flowers blooming, Haque is very keen not to tack on the fashionable phrase “Big Data” to it.

“In the early days of the Internet of Things, the systems were geared towards technology. It resulted in a conversation around big data, where meaning is inherent in the data. I just don't subscribe to that view. Meaning is created by people through conversations around data. In some cases, you can have analytical tools to help you to do that, but they are for people to understand the context: why was data collected? How was it collected? Who collected it? Those are the important factors for citizens, to talk about the what, why, who and where it was collected and why it is made public... and so on. That's another layer in Thingful that we aim to provide.”

“One of the popular notions of big data is that we can simply apply tools which can run an algorithm on the data and out of this pops an insight, sidestepping over the more fundamental, human questions. I think that it is very important for people to be able to look at measurement, more than the data itself. Most people have something that they are concerned about, and some measure it: temperature, air quality... and they try things in order to try to improve it. They are not concerned with the numbers per se. They are concerned with the changes in those numbers, or whatever hypothesis they might have. The process of understanding comes from measurement, and how what you do changes what you measure - less from just looking at a dataset.”

Haque's experience from Pachube has resulted in a more pragmatic approach to Thingful's development. He is particularly keen on group and neighbourhood activities, where data is offered out to a wider community based on simple experiments. The recent BBC programme Trust me I'm a doctor provides Haque with a good example in this area; a row of silver birch trees were planted on a road in Lancaster, with the air quality (based on particulate matter volume) measured within those houses which were beside the trees, and those which we not. Residents performed simple air quality tests by wiping their television screens and then analysing the samples. It's simple, community-led measurements such as this that Thingful aims to capture.

Thingful itself, as Haque observes, is the start and not the end of a journey of discovery. Web search engines are clearly very different and more effective compared to their early-90s inceptions; finding “things” is the same. There's much more to do in order to surface and provide conversation platforms around what's out there; the Internet-connected objects have very little meaning if there isn't an easy way to talk about them. What Thingful simply aims to do in its current Alpha phase is to break down the perceived silos between objects and object types, and data and data types, that should not be there.

Although Thingful provides a way for anyone to publish information on their own connected adventures, he sees a place for public organisations in terms of how they work with objects and data. PAN Studio's Hello Lamp Post is one of the first city-wide examples of how citizens can freely communicate with objects. “There's a definite move in that direction and, of course, there are a lot of municipalities now looking to make their data public. I would like to see that go one step further, for that process to become a two-way activity... not just for the data to be made public, but for the public making some of that data. I say that because it's good for municipalities to make that data public, so that people can make sense of it, and do stuff with it, but people should also be able to contribute to the things that they think need to be measured that have not necessarily been provided [by the local authority]. Sometimes, the local authority has a particular remit to, for example, measure the air quality, but that's a coarse-grain analysis. Citizens will be wanting to measure in and around their homes. It becomes a 2-way process; it's not just about opening up the data, but providing the tools in order for them to make measurements and to gain results.”

This year has been an eventful one for Haque; bookended by the launch of his “participatory product and service agency” Umbrellium earlier in the year, and Thingful last week. As both the business and the website mature and find firm footings in 2014, it won't stop Haque searching out new issues, topics and matters in which an analytical, critical eye can be cast.

One of these is, like “Big Data”, is the emergence of the term “smart city”.

“I have been quite critical of the idea of the smart city. I have been talking about smart citizens, rather than smart cities. What I would like to see is more of a nuance in that relationship between citizens and their cities. In our relationship as citizens to the technology of our cities, it's not the top-down that's all wrong and the bottom-up is all good. It's a delicate relationship between the two. That's what I would like to think that we're going to be able to approach much more carefully in the coming months. We have been building a kit of parts in the various projects that we've been doing, enabling empowerment but also creativity in citizens.”

There's no doubt that the way in which interact with micro-environment (our selves, our homes, our devices) is changing at broadly the same pace as our interactions with the macro (each other, our environments). If objects and data allow us to make more informed opinions as to the qualities of these interactions, then their importance cannot be underestimated. Thingful may provide one small step but for many, it will very much be a step in the right direction.

Usman Haque is @uah on Twitter. Thingful is now available as an alpha release.

Paul is the publisher of Imperica.

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