Many a blog line has been penned on the rich topic of the Internet of Things (IoT) but not much has been written about the real world challenges between our today and the many promises of the IoT tomorrow. Technology considerations can easily blind us “techies” to more mundane realities but, when you work as deeply in the Smart City space as I do, it is difficult to avoid them. In my opinion, the technology challenges surrounding the IoT are relatively small compared to the real world challenges that are perhaps not so obvious.
Some say the IoT is now, but I don’t believe that! I believe we are on a journey, and the trajectory of every vertical industry to this destination will be carved somewhat uniquely and at its own necessary pace. Healthcare is often touted as a darling of the IoT, but the privacy, security and regulatory issues here might never be adequately solved in a way that will allow this sensitive data to be leveraged up significantly into any wider value creating ecosystem. The automotive and intelligent transportation verticals, on the other hand, look more promising to me in terms of fast tracking their way to the IoT. Much of the data in these verticals is not quite so sensitive, and both these industries are highly motivated to find new ways to create new value to sustain themselves in the face of growing economic challenges.
Case study: the intelligent transportation systems (ITS) vertical
Sometimes confused or lumped with automotive, ITS is in fact very much its own industry and vertical market space. We all passively interact with this particular Intranet of Things throughout the course of our daily lives. It is the system that regulates our traffic lights, manages the flow of our transport systems and keeps count of available parking spaces, etc. All in all, in a typical transport authority there are in the order of 30-50 sensor categories all pumping out unique streams of data 24/7. On the surface, the player roles in this industry are very similar to the mobile industry. For example, transport authorities provide a similar role albeit with a different purpose to mobile operators, and transport equipment manufacturers provide an analogous role in this value chain to wireless OEMs. However, beyond this, these two industries are very different.
The mobile industry has consolidated incredibly through its long history. The advent and evolving tradition of international standards like GSM have delivered enormous uniformity and scale benefits. In a typical sovereignty, there are likely no more than a handful of service providers at most.
The transport industry, on the other hand, is remarkably fragmented. For example, in a country the size of England, there are more than 200 regional transport authorities. Each authority is essentially autonomously operated. It would not be fair to say that there are no standards, but those that exist tend to be regional or national at best. The result is an industry of silos where it is difficult for even two adjacent authorities to simply share the data generated by their independent systems for a mutual benefit.
So what does the IoT mean to the transportation vertical?
Today, the data produced in the transport industry is generally single purposed. This means that the data is typically only consumed for processing by one command and control system. This works great for the basic functioning of our everyday transport networks. But, what if we could do more with this data? What if it was available in a consistent form to application developers or other transport authorities? What might be possible if it was available for integration with data from other industries (e.g. automotive, healthcare)? This is the promise of the IoT.
The journey to the IoT for the transportation industry is one of a progressive opening of data assets across a very large number of players over a wide geography. This needs to be accomplished at sufficient scale and with sufficient controls in place to allow the promises of the new services and applications of the IoT to be fulfilled.
What are the real world challenges this industry is facing on its unique journey?
The biggest single driver that is pushing an embrace of the IoT vision is that the authorities (typically, government-funded agencies) are increasingly expected to provide improved services with ever shrinking budgets. This, coupled with the real need to innovate and develop new services to meet increasing customer expectations, is positively driving this agenda. However, delivering on this innovative vision in an industry more typically driven by budget optimization objectives is not an easy cultural fit in many of these organizations. The adoption of innovation by transport authorities is hindered by a common set of key issues:
- Historical contracts: local governments usually procure services and contracts only to solve well-defined problems on a case-by-case basis with often lengthy contractual obligations. That has led to a culture of vendor lock-ins and siloed operation from which it is very difficult to break free.
- Mindset: the impedance of the status quo and a need to sustain and preserve current infrastructure typically drive procurement decisions. Short-term time horizons inhibit the strategic longer-term positioning required to seed an IoT innovation agenda.
- Level of understanding: authorities don’t have a common level of expertise when it comes to the emerging data economy. Consequently, innovative solutions seen by one might appear more futuristic by another so limiting the scope and impact of innovation.
- Multiple data stakeholders: Authorities have to deal with a wide range of data storage, privacy and security definitions resulting from dealing with different sectors in a complex city ecosystem. Due to the multiple requirements and degree of specialization to deal with particular datasets, even internal or even local sharing of data is sometimes problematic and fraught with legal red tape.
So how do we move forward?
The journey to the IoT for every industry will require a balanced combination of technical and non-technical solutions. On the technical front, standardization will be key. Today, it is easy to take for granted the mobile phone experience we all enjoy. However, this was only made possible by the GSM standard and those that have followed it in its image. GSM enabled a federation of independent wireless operators, vast economies of scale and rich new services. In the new data economy, a similar federation of transport operators will be required and this will only be possible (like GSM) through standards.
One clear example of a standard designed for the purposes of creating a federation of data assets is the oneM2M standard. This international standard was created by the same organization that developed GSM and is ratified by seven global standardization bodies. In my opinion, oneM2M is a key enabler for the IoT.
However, standards and technologies solutions alone will not be enough. Solutions to the non-technical challenges will need to find industry specific answers. This will require open forum discussions around shared experiences of the “journey” that different authorities will travel at different speeds. Common practices in areas like data management and data quality will need to be established and possibly new requirements on regulations crafted by consensus. The IoT will represent a sea change that will open up a new world of opportunities and the effort should be more than worth it.
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