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Singapore government outlines its approach to IoT

Avoiding supplier lock-in, driving open standards and tapping modular platforms are part of the approach that the Singapore government has taken in implementing the internet of things in the city-state

The biggest hurdle in implementing the internet of things (IoT) around the world is the existence of walled gardens put up by technology suppliers, according to Singapore’s minister in charge of the country’s smart nation initiative.

“Every big IT company wants to create behind its own wall a unique ecosystem, and is trying to lock us in,” said Vivian Balakrishnan in his address at IoT Asia 2018 that highlighted the Singapore government’s approach to IoT deployments.

“It is the duty of governments and public officials to avoid being trapped by suppliers behind walled gardens,” he added, calling for open standards that would let IT providers develop products and services that ride on those standards.

Balakrishnan, who is also Singapore’s foreign affairs minister, said developing open standards, however, is a political and regulatory issue – one that requires governments to stay on top of technology, and to understand and insist on open standards.

Singapore, for one, has already embarked on driving open IoT standards. A government-led IoT technical committee was formed in 2013 to develop IoT foundational standards in areas such as architecture, interoperability, security and data protection.

Four IoT standards have been published so far to guide the deployment of sensor networks in public areas and homes, as well as to facilitate seamless information-sharing and improve sensing capabilities across services and devices.

Recognising the importance of open standards in driving IoT development, industry groups such as the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) have also sprung up to develop IoT specifications that will help IoT suppliers ensure that things will work well together.

Adoption of IoT specification

In March 2017, the OCF collaborated with the Singapore Semiconductor Industry Association to promote the adoption of its IoT specification among small and medium-sized enterprises and startups in the Singapore.

Having open standards is only part of the IoT equation. Balakrishnan also stressed the importance of modular platforms that would enable different layers of the application stack to be plugged in and out in the face of rapid technological change.

He said: “Today, if you deploy a sensor on the edge and do some minimum processing, calculation and security operations, what are your options? Should you use a Raspberry Pi? And even if you’re using Raspberry Pi, should you be using Pi Zero or Pi Compute? Or a microcontroller based on the Arduino platform, or an ESP8266 chip which has both processing and connectivity functions?”

Speaking from his experience in programming such devices, Balakrishnan said simpler hardware programmed with as little code as possible is often preferred since that often leads to more reliable and secure devices.

As such, Balakrishnan advised organisations to maintain a healthy scepticism over supplier offerings, and take the attitude that while they might buy a particular product today, they could switch to something else tomorrow that might be cheaper, more effective, reliable and secure.

Amid rising concerns over IoT security, and in summing up the government’s approach to IoT deployment, Balakrishnan underscored the importance of building security into IoT products and services from the onset, rather than as an afterthought.

“Having smart cooling systems and manufacturing systems also makes them extremely vulnerable. You lose privacy and security, and worse, they become available to both state and non-state actors to sabotage critical public infrastructure,” he said. “This is a deep field which requires intimate knowledge of technology, programming and design.”

Improving security, quality, scope and reliability

The Singapore government has been actively tapping IoT to improve the security, quality, scope and reliability of public services.

In 2017, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) said it was developing a nationwide sensor network called the Smart Nation Sensor Platform – previously known as the Smart Nation Platform – with common infrastructure and services such as a data sharing gateway, as well as video and data analytics capabilities.

Read more about IoT in ASEAN

During the first phase of the project, GovTech has worked with other public agencies to deploy security cameras in public areas, environmental sensors and connectivity infrastructure in Yuhua, Civic District, Orchard Road and a few other areas.

Moving forward, GovTech will also collaborate with the Land Transport Authority to leverage the latter’s lamp post infrastructure to test the feasibility of deploying a shared network of sensors that transmit environmental data on temperature and humidity.

Balakrishnan said while putting sensors on street lamps is not a new idea, the real value of these smart lamps lies in their ability to improve security, monitor the environment, optimise the flow of traffic and people, and make more services available to businesses and people.

“But beyond the technology and government’s approach in IoT deployment, the most critical shortage is skills. If we don’t train our people, businesses and leaders to keep up with technology, we won’t be able to appreciate the possibilities and dangers of the technology we’re rolling out,” he said.

He added that countries that get things right will gain a disproportionate share of wealth and influence to alter the trajectory of their regions and the world.

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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