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An Open Internet of Things

Andrew Back

IoT Showcase









The Internet of Things (IoT) is set to herald an age in which physical objects create and consume data without human intervention, and this will have an enormous impact on our everyday lives. In recognising this and in a bid to establish the foundations of a privacy-sensitive Open Internet of Things, an assembly of practitioners gathered together in London over the weekend of 16/17th June 2012 to draft a definition of what one might look like.

Both days of the Open IoT Assembly started off with a series of presentations that provided context, framing and inspiration. A great deal of information was conveyed and some complex, and at times profound, issues were covered. What follows is an attempt at capturing just a few of the key messages from each presentation — there are omissions and there may well be errors.

Adam Greenfield, Founder and Managing Director, Urbanscale

Adam Greenfield










Channelling Lawrence Lessig, Adam suggested that increasingly code is law, and yet software code can be updated without constitutional change. An example was given in the form of a civic CCTV system which may be installed for simple monitoring purposes, and then later upgraded in order that it can be used to track people through facial recognition. And we were urged to think about the implications of when there is power, e.g. legal or political, in a technology system.

In drawing his presentation to a close Adam ended on a positive note and outlined a vision for the IoT — this mode of ubiquitous computing — in which it serves to reduce the isolation brought about by sitting in front of a computer.

Rob van Kranenburg, European Comission IoT Expert Group

Rob van Kranenburg












Rob took us on a breakneck speed tour of his expansive vision for the IoT, where efficiencies would be removed from systems, corruption would be laid bare and… there would be an end to privacy! He noted that data ecologies were already developing and the question now was whether these are open or closed, and proposed that there should be a public open data backbone. He told in brief how he has been working with the Dutch government to explore how individuals empowered by the IoT could compete with mission critical public services, and noted that China is run by engineers and therefore posesses an “IoT mindset”.

In closing Rob issued a call to “occupy the [IoT] gateways!” with open source software and hardware.

Laura James, Co-Founder and Director, Makespace Cambridge

Laura James












Laura spent some time covering the definition of open as provided by the Open Knowledge Foundation, and suggested that the fundamental value proposition for open data is that the best thing that will be done with your data will be done by someone else. Going on to say that you won't have all the skills required to get the most from your data in-house, and what open data does is allow you to scale. She also covered some of the privacy issues, and measures that can be taken to address these.

Russell Davies, Partner at RIG

Russell Davies










Russell playfully explored and contrasted two possible futures: the all too familiar and somewhat clinical one where all technology is accessed via a glass touch screen, and the much more organic artisan world with hand-tooled craft products. Following this he suggested a third possibility: that individuals will turn to creating and customising physical things as a platform for expression. Noting how Clay Shirkey observed that "creating something personal, even of moderate quality, has a different kind of appeal than consuming something made by others, even of high quality".

In closing Russell urged us to make things that we find useful, saying that if we do this it's highly likely that others will also find these things useful, as we are not as unique as we may like to think.

Usman Haque, Founder of Cosm

Usman Haque












Usman opened up by underlining the conflation of data and knowledge and suggested that there exists a “fetish of the firehose” . Which is to say that we wrongly look to data as the answer to many problems and believe that it's just a matter of sticking enough sensors in things. Hinting at a solution, Usman suggested that what we must do instead is make people the focus, and not data.

The importance of context was further made clear, e.g. how data is collected and what effect it will have. And Usman suggested that data is something that must be crafted instead of gathered, noting that we contribute measurement parameters which effect outputs, and this represents craft.

In closing we were urged to think beyond simply data and things, and to people and non-humans.

Gavin Starks, Chairman and Founder, AMEE

Gavin Starks









Gavin posited that we are instrumenting the world for a reason and that increasingly this is due to the exhaustion of natural resources. Noting how in 13 years from now humans will have modified an incredible half of the land on the Earth.

Gavin observed that there is a desperate lack of reliable time series data and that much environmental data is 10 years or more out of date, and suggested that the IoT provides us with the means of addressing this problem and giving the planet and its resources a voice.

Contexts for the IoT

The Planet Work Group









On the Saturday morning we were split into groups and spent some time examining four contexts for the IoT: the Body, Home, City and Planet.

A number of issues were discussed and to give just one example, the group focusing on the Planet explored how global IoT governance might work and whether an authority would be required.

The Components of an Open IoT

The Licensing Work Group









A initial draft of the Open IoT definition had been developed through online collaboration prior to the event, and a good deal of time was spent on both days split into groups, further refining this document.

The definition attempts to tackle many thorny issues, such as the ownership and licensing of machine generated data. To give an example, who owns the data that a smart meter gathers about energy consumption, and if it's not the consumer do they have any right to this data? And if they do can they sub-license it to 3rd parties in order that they can add value?

There were many other issues related to licensing and these concerned just one area of the document, with other areas such as tools and privacy/control each having their own set of issues to be worked through.

Towards Rough Consensus

Event Conclusion






At the conclusion of the 2nd day the document was published in its current state, along with an invitation to become a signatory to the statements contained therein, and to participate in its further development prior to general publication on the 17th September 2012.

Top image: demonstrations during a small IoT showcase held as part of the event.

Open source (hardware and software!) advocate, Treasurer and Director of the Free and Open Source Silicon Foundation, organiser of Wuthering Bytes technology festival and founder of the Open Source Hardware User Group.

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