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CW500: Getting the most out of the internet of things

The IoT brings huge opportunities, but how can organisations take full advantage, and where lies the best potential? The latest CW500 Club looked at how to create the right environment for success

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Tapping into the internet of things

The internet of things (IoT) is becoming mainstream, and connected devices are everywhere – in our homes, on our streets, and in our lives.

Gartner predicts that by 2020, there will be more than 20 billion connected devices in the world, presenting the IoT market with one of the biggest opportunities today.  

But how far have we actually come in reaping the benefits of IoT? And how do you ensure IoT adoption is successful, and where do the best opportunities lie? At the latest CW500 club, experts shared their tips, advice and real-life experience on how to do just that.

It’s not just technology companies or new and modern businesses that can benefit from IoT. In fact, the UK’s national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, is carving out its own place in the world of connected devices.

Ordnance Survey was founded in 1791, but that hasn’t stopped the agency from embracing the digital world. Ordnance Survey’s director of innovation, Miranda Sharp, told the audience at the CW500 club that a lot of work is being done to ensure the agency’s content is machine readable and ready for the big data world.

Partnering with Space Syntax, a company originally spun out of University College London, Ordnance Survey is analysing the data to help with several areas, including city planning and connectivity on roads. An example Sharp gave was using statistics on changes in land use to evaluate how much greenfield land is being turned to brown, which areas of land are being built on, and so on.  

“We’re no longer just about rucksacks and damp people on hillsides,” Sharp said, adding that the Ordnance Survey is the holder of “the biggest geospatial data set in the world”, which is “frankly nuts” considering the size of the UK, which only accounts for 0.2% of the world’s landmass.  

So why is that relevant to IoT? When the Ordnance Survey was first born at the end of the 18th century, “we were to map things we could hide behind and shoot” at a time when we were worried about the French and the Scottish and the likelihood of invasion, Sharp said.

Now, people need increasing detail, and that detail has to be mapped. In an area of Manchester, south of Oxford Road, the Ordnance Survey mapped everything at street level, such as bollards, cycling lanes, 40,000 assets of yellow lines, cycling lanes, CCTV cameras and lamp posts to support IoT use cases. 

“Some of the use cases that emerged out of that were things like this, so this enabled people with visual impairments to navigate safely around the urban environment, because we’re able to tell them where everything is and we can get them from their homes to their bus stops safely,” said Sharp.

In another area of Manchester, Ordnance Survey mapped changes in house prices, following the extension of the Metro line to Didsbury.

Huge IoT potential

There are huge successes with IoT, but so far, Sharp said, the use cases we are seeing are single use cases.

“Air quality monitors are just being used for measuring air quality, which is what they were designed for. We’re seeing phones being used to track people. All those sensors are producing enormous amounts of data that can be used in many different ways. It’s the exploitation of the data that provides the biggest opportunity in IoT,” she said.

“What we have yet to really uncover is the multiple use case benefit. How do we get all the sensor data together to building a complete picture so we’re not running individually optimised networks, but we’re running a system of systems that can engage people and measure different outputs?” 

She pointed to the example of a connected, talking bus stop. Through your mobile phone, or another sensor, the bus stop will know you’ve arrived and that you get on the appropriate bus.

In the event of an emergency, the authorities will have an appropriate view of the street-side population, the city will be able to plan the bus route better as it will have rich data sources enabling it to send the right bus down the street at the right time. It could also predict if it’s going to rain, or know that there will be an increase in people taking the bus on market day, Sharp said.

“Public health can also get involved through nudging people, saying if there’s no bus for 20 minutes, but you walk for 10 minutes and invest in your health, we can reduce your bus fare,” she added.

The problem is, Sharp said, that the level of collaboration required to “make this thing actually fly is almost impossible”. 

At the moment, the technology is way ahead of the business model when it comes to IoT. 

Andrew Chapman, strategy and product development lead at Digital Catapult, agreed that we’re still at the very beginning of realising the potential of IoT. What’s forgotten, he said, is the ecosystem, which is “often underrated as an element for success”.

According to Chapman, “you can have the physical infrastructure and have the real-life business challenges, but if you don’t have that innovation support” then it can be a struggle. 

Digital Catapult, which works to accelerate the adoption of advanced digital technologies, such as IoT, across the UK, is trying to solve that through its Things Connected programme.

Digital Catapult identified a key problem, said Chapman, as low-power wireless networks can deliver “real significant benefits in the IoT space across industrial through to consumer, but there is a lack of investment in national networks and coverage for low power wireless”. To combat the issue, Digital Catapult launched a network across London, which has now been rolled out across other regions as well.   

“This is effectively a means to encourage innovation, by large players coming together with smaller innovators to test the technology and the business model in the network we provided for them to do that,” said Chapman. “They can test new sensors along with a new platform and try to work out how some of those new business models might work in the future.”

As networks start to become available in a way they haven’t been before, the use of IoT will grow, he added. 

Cultural challenges 

However, there are also cultural challenges, and trying to break through those in a large organisation isn’t always easy.

Chapman’s advice on this matter is to “come up with a strategy and just get started – sometimes, you can have paralysis through analysis”. 

Digital Catapult’s aim is to support innovation, getting people to come together to try to solve challenges. This includes an innovation lab where technologies and business models can be tested, new devices can be produced and companies can learn about what different types of platforms may do for them.   

Cultural issues are also something Chad Naeger, customer success officer at GE Digital, is concerned with. GE is a 125-year-old industrial company, and like most companies, culture is often engrained in the business. Despite this, GE has been successful in rolling out industrial IoT on a huge scale. 

Naeger said that early on, they didn’t recognise the opportunity IoT could bring – it was simply focused on mitigating risk in some of its services and business.

GE found that when selling its jet engines and wind turbines along with service contracts, software companies were trying to leverage their technology to sell performance improvements on GE’s assets. “So our foray into digital was basically because we didn’t want to become uberised,” Naeger said. 

“We then began to look for a platform and software capabilities that we could leverage to disrupt ourselves. Looking throughout the industry, what we discovered was that, from an industrial IoT perspective, there was no platform or software technology that we could really leverage,” he added. 

Building for success

Instead, GE decided to build its own industrial purpose-built platform called Predix, which it now also offers to customers with great success. In 2017, GE realised more than £1bn in productivity gains in 2017, through its use of tech.   

It’s not always been easy, and according to Naeger, the company is still going through a journey of cultural transformation. 

“The technology component of the transformation is relatively easy compared to the change management that needs to occur. So we really focus on the leadership, the talent in the organisation and the cultural transformation necessary,” Naeger said. 

“What we did in the early days was we took someone from the business and we would put them in a leadership position to execute this digital transformation. In hindsight, it was probably fairly obvious that was not going to be the most successful approach, because in many cases they resisted the change, they did not necessarily have the right skill sets or background to believe in this type of transformation.” 

Instead, GE discovered a better solution: bringing IT and operational technology (OT) together. Taking someone coming in with an IT perspective as a digital disruptor, and partnering them with someone from OT, giving them a joint set of outcomes, worked much better. In fact, it worked so well that this was replicated across the different business units. 

Getting digital into the “DNA of the entire organisation” and getting people from different parts of the business to work together is a long journey, Naeger said. 

“But when you can overcome your hurdle and get them together with shared outcomes and shared context so they work together to deliver, you can really accelerate the journey,” he added.

Read more about the CW500 Club

This was last published in July 2018

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