19 May 2015

Update 12th June: There’s a written summary of the event here, I prefer mine! But the video is more fun (hair is a bit messed up by cycle helmet …)

hot metal press proof reader

a hot metal press proof reader manufactured in 1857 as seen at the Guardian in King’s Place

Yesterday I particpated in a round table at the Guardian on The Internet of Things. A particular focus was how it affected the landscape for start up companies. The event was sponsored by Cisco, and there were a few people there from Cisco as well as several from their partners. I was the only academic at the discussion, there were quite a few interesting people there including Jacoby Thwaites of SPARKL, Adrian Ah-Chin-Kow of Insight, David Dunn of Sunderland Software City and Jenny Tooth, the CEO of UK Business Angles. The discussion was quite wide-ranging focussing on the challenges for start up companies in the Internet of Things, the social effects that IoT may bring about and the economic effects.

My expertise is more in data, so I was more interested in the effects it would have on data availability and the implications for start ups that were making devices.

There’ll be a write up of the discussion on June 4th in The Guardian Business section, so I don’t want to pre-empt that, but while they’re fresh in my mind I thought I’d put down a few thoughts I had before the meeting while riding to the station.

  1. Succesful companies in the field such as Google and Facebook are ‘data from the ground up. This thought was designed to reflect the challenge that new entrants to the market (in particular, existing businesses) face. They don’t know the value of their data. Actually, David Dunn from Sunderland Software City ended up putting this much better. He talked of a transition from (1) not realising they have data to (2) accepting they have data but not realising its value to (3) understanding the value of the data but then locking it down and protecting it.

    This thought was also designed to reflect the idea that even for internet of things, in the end it was data that was going to bring the value. David put the challenges for companies very nicely here. My understanding was that David was referring mainly to manufacturers, where there are no issues of ownership of data. But we had a nice discussion about data ownership where Jacoby Thwaites and Laura James, an advisor to Product Health also contributed. A particular point raised here was about the existence of legislation in the area. One thing I’ve come to realise from a series of discussions I’ve been having with Jonathan Price of Doughty Street Chambers on data ethics and law, is that there is some pretty farsighted legislation in this area, in particular from Europe, it goes all the way back to 1981 and covers many of the issues we discussed. However, many of those challenges did not arise in the form we are now facing in the intervening years, so it may be that the legislation hasn’t been tested enough in court to know the boundaries. The massive growth in the interconnection of personal data has come thirty years after the legislation was written.

  2. The Game-ification of Life

    Another thought that seemed relevant to the internet of things was the way in which we are encouraged to engage with devices (and apps) by turning things into games. For example, there is a health app on my mobile phone that tells me how far I’ve walked relative to other users in the country. I think a particularly good example of this being done successfully is Strava. Strava is an application for tracking your running and or cycling. For cycling they weren’t the first to market (at least not for users in my local area, there were apps like Edomondo), but they added a competetive element by splitting rides into segments and creating ranked lists of who was fastest across a particular segment. This encourages engagement. It adds a (potentially) competetive element to cycling and enjoying the Peak District.

    This process is known as ‘gamification’. For the case of cycling it’s interesting because whilst Garmin were the first to market with both a hardware device and software for uploading the rides, they were quickly outstripped by Strava in terms of number of users. Strava is more a data company than a hardware company, and the data is probably where the value lies (this came up a few times at the meeting). One conclusion is that start-ups may get an edge initially through device manufacturing (like Garmin) but in the end a data-driven company may become dominant. This is a little like the domination of software providers over hardware providers we saw in the PC revolution. Of course there can be exceptions, like Apple. But Apple strongly interlink there software with their hardware and have a closed system. I think such systems wouldn’t be healthy for future data ecosystems (but it doesn’t mean they won’t happen!). Indeed it is noticeable that Garmin moved their default format from very open formats (gpx) to a more proprietary one (fit).

    A further thought was that if successful data companies succeed by ‘gamification’, and there are an increasing number of devices that are internet aware. To what extent will our lives become dominated by gamification? Can we imagine scenarios where our fridge has gamified our eating habits? Will we be competing on line to how much we’ve played with our children in a given day? There are clear limits, each of which is probably personal, I have cycling friends who really dislike the idea of Strava. But I imagine for some people this could all become quite stressful.

    When discussing social implications Jenny Tooth quite rightly brought up the importance of internet of things in healthcare, particularly for the elderly. I strongly agree with this and also turned the discussion to mental health. Something we are exploring with the NewMind network, sponsored by the EPSRC and run out of the University of Manchester.

  3. Widening of Gaps

    A final thought was on what effect the internet of things would have on societal gaps. For example, in the UK government health campaigns (like eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day) tend to resonate with people who are already health concious. So in the end they actually increase the health of those that weren’t really being targeted. This actually increases gaps between the healthy and the less healthy.

    Health and other inequalities could either widen or narrow, and I could see either happening. In particular, many people who are less technologically aware may struggle with these new devices, and therefore be left behind. Also those that don’t wish to engage in the gamification of life would also miss out on benefits. It is clear that there would be opportunity to reach out to, and assist, larger portions of the population. But to what extent would that be taken up? A nice conclusion from a discussion with Jacoby Thwaites and Peter was that we would know that the internet of things had succeeded when we stopped talking about the internet of things. I think this is very true. Devices would bring the internet to us successfully if they integrate with our lives in an almost unheeded manner. It was a nice way to round off the debate.

I hope I didn’t misrepresent any opinions or thoughts from the discussion above, people should feel free to get in touch or comment if they feel I have done.

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