Infographic  Smarter Cities. Turning Big Data into Insight.jpg

If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it's clear that many of the concepts driving the Internet of Things (IoT) have been around for some time now. It took a while for the penny to drop, but substitute "Smarter Planet" or "Smarter Cities" for IoT in much that has been written and a lot of the reporting could have originated two years ago.

However, that's not to say the IoT and, for example, IBM's Smarter Cities and wider Smarter Planet initiatives are identical. To discover the differences — and similarities — are we turned to Katharine Frase, the Chief Technology Officer with IBM’s Public Sector business. Today we share her understanding of IoT and the ways it relates to Smarter Cities.

Defining the IoT

Before we go on, let's define what it is we're talking about. One of the problems with the IoT is defining exactly what it is. Over the past year, we have come across a number of definitions. But one of the most succinct came from Sanjay Poonen, head of the mobile division at SAP last year:

The ‘Internet of Things’ concept ... integrates machines, people, ERP and CRM systems, and other information sources like social media, but also analyzes and makes use of all the data. Soon, people will interact with devices that in turn interact with data to deliver personalized products and services directly to the consumer in real time…”

If this sounds familiar, then look at how IBM describes Smarter Cities:

A city is an interconnected system of systems. A dynamic work in progress, with progress as its watchword. Smarter cities of the future will drive sustainable economic growth. Their leaders have the tools to analyze data for better decisions, anticipate problems to resolve them proactively and coordinate resources to operate effectively.

The Importance of Data

In both cases, the emphasis is on data and the use of the data to provide actionable insights into human actions. However, according to Frase, this where the two part company. The IoT takes information from processors located in all kinds of consumer goods to develop actionable insights. The Smarter Cities initiative takes the same information and combines it with traditional information sources.

The two concepts are not in conflict with each other, but Smarter Cities seem to be better developed than the IoT as it was described last week at the International CES. Frase told us:

The two systems are not adversarial. But I think [Smarter Cities strategies] are larger. For the Smarter Planet and Cities, yes, we need IoT data. But we also need data from internal data sources, from the processes and applications people run. We need the traditional data that is located in databases, as well as these new sources. I don’t want to paint it as adversarial, but I think we are focused on slightly different outcomes."

Developing Actionable Insights

While the IoT it is really only beginning to evolve, IBM has been working on the Smarter Cities and Smarter Planet initiatives since the launch of its Smarter Computing strategy at the Pulse conference in March 2011. Actually, the concept was first proposed by former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano during a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in 2008.

This is not to put the IoT and Smarter Cities in conflict with each other, but to point out that at least in the public sector, the concept and practice of taking information from all kinds of devices to provide actionable insights has a long history both in and outside the US.

From this experience, Frase points to one of the issues that will have to be resolved by vendors that are working with the IoT. One of those issues, she said, is how individuals and enterprises are going to manage the information that is being provided by a world in which almost everything has a processor. She asked:

In the discussion around the Internet of Things, there is almost a sense that if all these devices have sensors that are reporting their status all the time, that does not automatically make us more intelligent and give us more insight." 

The point, she said,, is that while there are clear advantages to having information available from all kinds of devices, there are also considerable challenges in dealing with the amount of information that will be available and how that information can be used.

You don’t necessarily want to be connected to a network that gives you every single piece of information from ever single device everywhere. In other words, all the network traffic doesn’t necessarily bring any more insight to humans. When we talk about the internet of things where everything is instrumented, how do we separate the signal from the noise? How do we do this without overwhelming humans with information and instead provide sources of information that help the decisions they can make use every day?"

Solving Urban Problems

In the case of Smarter Cities, she said IBM has approached the issue by working with clients to solve specific problems in a specific context — an approach that could be useful for those involved in developing the IoT.

Instead of just providing a mass of information from sensors located in millions of devices, she suggests that those providing the processors or enabling the provision of information work with specific clients and develop ways of providing specific kinds of information for actionable insights.

She cites the example of a city in Spain where IBM is providing information from trash cans and street lights. The purpose, she said, it to provide city managers with better information on street lighting and trash collection.

In Spain, on the surface, this project is very much like the way the Internet of Things will work — instrumented trash cans and instrumented streetlights — but what the project is really about is not about the trash cans or the streetlights per se but how you take the information from those things and pass it on to decision makers."

Similar projects have already been undertaken in the US. In these cases, the problem is wider in that the information is being made available not just to city managers, but to the residents as well in an effort to improve water and power consumption as well as general civic services.

At the heart of all this is the ability to take meaningful insights from huge amounts of information, a service IBM is in a strong position to do given the way it has built up both its analytics and big data business.

Smarter Cities Technology

To help cities to analyze these amounts of information IBM has created a core set of technologies that are fed with information from the bottom and which are made available to users at the top of through a set of other technologies:

We have built up a core set of technologies that feeds into it [core Smarter Cities technologies] from the bottom with data from all kinds of places — it can be sensor data, it can be data that the city department already has, it can be information from a telecom provider — so the platform is being fed by many sources and many people from the bottom. At the top, you have a set of analytics, a set of dashboards, visualizations or portals specific to a set of problems to be solved and all delivered to the cloud.”

This is only an example, she said, and not a case of pushing IBM. There are other providers and technologies that can do the same thing, but you get the idea. The advantage here is that because these technologies are cloud based they can be added to manage problems as they arise and taken out as the problem is resolved.

The Smarter Cities initiatives from the likes of IBM have been developing for some years. The technology enabling IoT looks like it will only reach economies of scale that will enable it to happen in the coming years, given that it depends on the availability of cheap processors.

However, there is much that is similar and a lot vendors working in the IoT space can learn much from Smarter Cities.