Monday, 2 January 2012

Challenges for the Internet of Things Part 1

This is a fairly philosophical post about the context of the 'Internet of Things' (IoT), rather than a post about the practical aspects of taking a human-centred approach to IoT. It is pointing out some risks that may not have been registered by the strictly technical folk that comprise the bulk of the IoT community. The aim is to be helpful rather than negative. A subsequent post will include my input to the 'panopticon' new year's contest.

1. Fix the name

Having the wrong name for something is a continuing burden. 'Internet of Things' (IoT) is the wrong name. From a business point of view, it is an 'Internet of Services Mediated by Things' (h/t Graham Hill). Not very catchy, but a lot more accurate. From reading the wikipedia entry, IoT does not seem to be without conceptual problems; the expression was coined in 1999, and we are far from an agreed definition. Perhaps a change might not be all that painful. The suggestion here, unsurprisingly, is to take a human-centred approach.

The internet could have 7 billion people. How about an internet of people? Nice name, taken from here (although that post addresses a slightly different topic). IoT could offer an 'Internet of People Enhanced by Things'. An excellent post on a 'strengths based society' has the quote "I’m becoming convinced that this is the purpose of the web: to use it as a tool to enhance both ourselves and the network."
[As an aside, simple arithmetic says that 7 billion people, 50 billion 'things'  is less than 8 things each. Is the 50 Bn 'thing' forecast massively low?]

The people using the IoT will have a number of roles that will need to be supported if IoT is to succeed. These roles include:
User as product. All this 'free' stuff on the internet? If you don't know what is being sold, it is probably you. The business model of patientslikeme is a typical example. The data gathered from the 'free' buddy network is sold to pharmaceutical companies.
User as consumer. M2M might be interesting, but if there are no P involved, who pays? This consumer role will continue, even though 'there is no more money', but it is likely to become much more discriminating in ways we don't understand yet. Innovation in business models and pricing could well be far more important than technical innovation (Irene Ng has written on this), but using innovation of this type as a design driver is very new.
User as co-creator. The role of the user as co-creator of services on a continuing basis is fundamental.
User as validator.  This piece discusses the role of the receptionist in repeat prescriptions, with a link to a BMJ article that concludes: "Receptionists and administrative staff make important “hidden” contributions to quality and safety in repeat prescribing in general practice, regarding themselves accountable to patients for these contributions. Studying technology-supported work routines that seem mundane, standardised, and automated, but which in reality require a high degree of local tailoring and judgment from frontline staff, opens up a new agenda for the study of patient safety." There are many circumstances where human validation of machine-generated data or information is required. From working on military systems, my experience is that technologists under-estimate the need for this during early design, and can find it very hard to retro-fit.
User as error-maker.The unfortunate truth is that people make mistakes. Usually when they are 'set up' to do so. Design needs to allow the IoT (or whatever) to reduce human error potential, and to support error recovery.
User as member of (multiple) social networks (not all online). I get the impression that 'things' are seen as elements of automation, rather than augmentation of social interaction. The two are very different.
User as decision maker. Where users are 'making decisions' it is important to understand the nature of the decisions being made, and to provide the cues needed to support them. Gary Klein's decision-centered design can be grafted on to Human Centred Design without too much difficulty by design teams that are aware of the importance of this.
Users need a 'human window' on complex automation. This can drive many aspects of system design. For example, needing to provide explanations can have a major impact.
Functional roles, where the user is sponsor, maintainer, auditor, regulator, forensic investigator etc. Missing whole roles is easy to do without a strong commitment to Human Centred Design, and usually has serious consequences.

2. The  Vision Thing

Extrapolating technology into the future is cute but frequently wrong. The Villemard 1910 postcards are charming, and the paleofuture blogs old and new are fascinating. Is IoT destined to provide the 2010's entries for retronaut? The bottom-up approach of IoT makes it vulnerable to missing trends in society or business. For example, 'smart' cities as conceived by IoT may be 'fighting the last war' i.e. based on a model of urbanism that is becoming invalid. IBM's predictions for smarter buildings are in line with IoT thinking but have no top-down view of the context for IoT. The various elements of the resilience movement seem to be moving in a different direction. For example here:
"In fact the resilience movement is growing, as is the dissatisfaction with the high tech green gizmo approach to sustainable design. You see it in houses with the Passivhaus movement, where one trades active systems for insulation and sunlight; you see it in the streets with the cycling phenomenon. It is a conscious choice to use simpler, repairable, resilient systems." The resilient movement has a wide range of approaches, ranging from the transition towns to this and beyond. They don't seem to be placing any dependence on IoT.

One may well disagree with James Howard Kunstler's road map for tomorrow's cities, but IoT does not offer an alternative. It needs to be part of a vision with clearly stated assumptions on energy cost and use, demographics, trade, education, the priority for walkable cities vs. other means of getting around, the scope for refurbishment vs. newbuild (and doubtless many other aspects of IoT context). A sample of  views of urbanism can be found here, here, here and at Ikea. No reliance on IoT in evidence so far as I can see. It will be interesting to see what the mainstream US TED view is with its competition.

 Similar concerns could be expressed over other applications of IoT.

More on IoT challenges anon.

Update: Archinect also seems short of links to IoT.

There is a good post on a sensor commons, that starts to get at some of the issues of accuracy and of system integration. Interestingly, it proposes sensors installed by some underground citizen's movement. As regards the challenge of system integration  between the 'things' and their setting, this article is interesting. If robots are to become an everyday presence, the usual thinking goes, they'll have to be able to function in a completely uncontrolled environment. However, I think the inverse is likely to be true: In the future, we will sculpt our environment to become more robot-centric to accommodate their needs.

For the health sector, a great user-centred objective would be to support epatients, with this article as a starting point.


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  2. The Internet of Things is the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.