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Why Singapore’s GovTech is building an IoT technology stack

Government Technology Agency has built an internet of things technology stack to level the playing field for smaller firms and drive innovation in public sector IoT projects

At a Singapore Government Technology Agency (GovTech) facility that would easily pass as a developer space at any technology startup, teams of engineers clad in t-shirts and jeans are doing their part to spur the use of the internet of things (IoT) in the public sector.

A team is prototyping a heart-rate detection machine that ascertains the heartbeat of people using radar rather than a fitness tracker, while others are training a video analytics application that singles out people and personal mobility devices to improve public safety.

But integrating and managing such IoT systems – and keeping them secure – has typically been a major bugbear, partly because of the use of technologies from different suppliers in the fragmented IoT ecosystem that do not always pay heed to interoperability.

Consider Singapore’s smart lamp-post deployments. Because the government typically awards multiple tenders for smart lamp-post projects across different parts of the city-state, it could end up with competing suppliers that don’t always make sure their systems work with each other’s.

That’s where GovTech’s new Sensor and IoT (SIOT) technology stack comes in. Serving as the foundation for IoT projects in the public sector, SIOT comprises three components: the Manuca hardware development kit that supports more than a hundred sensors; the Decada edge gateway software; and the Decada multi-tenant cloud platform for managing IoT devices and performing data analytics that runs on Microsoft Azure.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview, Quek Yang Boon, director of GovTech’s SIOT capability centre, said that using SIOT as technology building blocks, IoT technology suppliers can easily build their systems without having to worry about managing them.

“In fact, some of these systems can be managed by us – they just have to build and connect them to the platform,” he said. “If they all use Manuca, we can even make some minor changes on our own without needing to rebuild the whole system.”

To drive industry interest, GovTech has set up a developer portal that provides blueprints on how the SIOT technology stack can be used to power IoT applications targeted at the public sector.

“Vendors and agencies can use those as reference designs and start building,” said Quek, adding that the portal also enables developers to put forward innovative ideas that could benefit government agencies using the same tech stack.

In a simple demonstration, Quek, a former Apple engineer who worked on the digital crown of the first Apple Watch, showed how the Manuca hardware development kit fitted with temperature and air-quality sensors can easily be connected to the Decada cloud to provide environmental information.

“We provide all the hardware schematics and firmware for Manuca, but any hardware company can strip out what they don’t need and turn it into any shape and size,” he said.

Not all data processing needs to be done on the cloud, however, for reasons such as cost, as well as for workloads with data that needs to be acted upon quickly.

Read more about IoT in APAC

Quek said simple tasks such as noise filtering can be performed at the Manuca sensor node, which has an onboard ARM Cortex-M7 processor and 2MB of flash memory. The clean, raw data can then be sent to the Decada edge gateway, where it is analysed before relevant metadata is sent to the cloud for further processing.

As a software platform, the Decada edge gateway can be installed on ARM-based devices, as well as more powerful machines for running image analytics applications. It also uses plugins, including one for the MQTT protocol, to connect and process sensor data.

With the SIOT, GovTech hopes to level the playing field for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that may not have all the resources to compete effectively against larger companies in IoT projects, said Quek.

“An SME may have a great idea on how to detect a virus in the air, but may need to spend a few years to figure out the government’s IoT and security requirements,” he said. “We want to level the playing field by providing a tech stack so they don’t have to worry about how IoT is being built – as long as they can get good data with their sensors.”

Quek said that researchers, too, can leverage the SIOT to take their ideas further, particularly those that already have the algorithms and software smarts to make sense of data.

“They just need to focus on building the best algorithm, which can be a plugin on our platform,” he said. “We will take care of the hardware, connectivity, packet management, authentication and security.”

Noting that there are other IoT ecosystems, such as those around the Arduino and Raspberry Pi platforms, Quek said there is none owned by, and developed in, Singapore – which can make a difference when troubleshooting issues and building the country’s technology knowhow.

“The difference now is that if there’s a problem we need to fix, we have developers who can do that and to explain why we chose to put in a 10K resistor and not a 5K resistor because of power consumption considerations,” he said. “These are insights you’ll never get unless you are the true developer.”

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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