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IoT is not just for business – how do we make it work for the public sector?

Civica highlights why it’s time to change your perspective on the Internet of Things in new report

Sponsored Feature One of the problems with ubiquitous technologies is that we sometimes lose sight of how much they've changed our lives already and how much more change they can still deliver.

Technologists have been building devices to generate and transmit streams of information for decades, but the term "internet of things", or IoT, wasn't coined until 1999 by RFID pioneer Kevin Ashton at MIT. He argued that sensors and other devices would eventually replace humans as the main originators of the data flowing into the internet.

Ashton's insight was perhaps overshadowed by the concept of the internet connected smart fridge unveiled by LG in 2000. And if your yardstick for the success of IoT is that a frozen pizza can be quickly delivered to replace the one you've just eaten, you just might think that promise has yet to be fully realised.

But that perspective risks ignoring the many ways in which a broad array of sensors, edge components and consumer devices have proliferated in the last two decades. All of these can produce substantial, consistent streams of data, and additionally require the infrastructure and software smarts to make use of them.

Better networks offer firm foundation

The dawn of ubiquitous cloud computing (think AWS and rival super scalars) has coincided with major advances in connectivity, particularly the onset of ubiquitous networking. Various wireless technologies - from WiFi to LoRoWAN and 5G - have set the stage for a massive leap in scale for both data gathering and processing.

The number of 'active endpoints' grew 8 per cent in 2021 to reach 12.2 billion, according to research from IoT Analytics published by public sector software leader Civica in its Perspectives* report, "Connect to the Future". That growth came despite supply chain constraints and other post pandemic headwinds, but is expected to continue with equivalent numbers hitting 14.4 billion in 2022, and hit 27 billion by 2025.

This has been both accompanied and fuelled by stunning advances in analytics capabilities, creating a virtuous circle where the massive datasets which sensors and other devices produce can be used to fine-tune artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms to ensure IoT networks can deliver real value to a broad range of customers and stakeholders.

The expected benefits could be enormous. McKinsey predicts that by 2030 the total "potential economic value that IoT could unlock" amounts to between $5.5 trillion and $12.6 trillion, including the value captured by consumers and customers of IoT products and services.

Over a quarter of that value will be concentrated in factory environments, where IoT will help in areas like production optimisation and predictive maintenance. Healthcare will be responsible for up to 14 per cent. Other key areas include increasingly autonomous vehicles, as well as smart cities, and workplaces including the office and retail.

A smart approach to rubbish?

But while there are clear benefits to adopting IoT in traditional business settings, public sector organisations and the populations they serve also stand to gain.

Mainstream smart city initiatives might focus on how IoT can be applied to traffic management or self-regulating green buildings. But the technology is just as useful in more prosaic but equally important applications. As Civica notes in its Perspectives* report, in 2021 Dutch city The Hague began equipping public waste containers with sensors which will inform the city when they are full and need emptying. Moreover, the information will be aggregated and analysed to reveal which containers fill up more quickly, meaning garbage collection routes can be reworked to avoid unnecessary trips by collection trucks.

On a broader scale, the UK's Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs recently concluded a consultation exercise on mandatory digital waste tracking after noting that while the UK produces 200 million tonnes of waste each year, there is no single or comprehensive way of keeping tabs on it.

But there's more than waste at stake. Norfolk County Council has used LoRaWAN to track information on when bins need emptying, and also used the same technology to detect when roads need gritting.

On a personal level, sensors and instrumentation already play an increasing role in healthcare and wellness, whether in the form of personal fitness trackers, clinical grade skin patches, or trackers that can relay vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure or specific information such as insulin levels. The data gathered can also feed into broader analytics projects to track individuals' health and spot emerging public health issues, as well as informing medical research.

Elsewhere 'instrumented' homes can detect residents' activity levels and patterns to support independent living for seniors or other vulnerable people and enable remote medicine. And within hospitals, IoT can be used for asset tracking to manage inventory of often expensive medical equipment and inform maintenance schedules.

To connect the things, first join the dots

So, while the financial benefits might be skewed toward manufacturers and other private sector players, there are clear economic and social benefits to be gained from IoT in the public realm too.

But how do policy makers and public sector technology leaders begin to take advantage of this potential? Firstly, they need to grasp some of the non-technical challenges around implementing IoT. These include change management to ensure efficient collaboration between stakeholders and changing behavior, systems and processes. There are also hurdles around interoperability and installation to be overcome.

The proliferation of endpoints which provide more temptation and potential entry points for bad actors also raises cyber security concerns which will naturally feed into consumer trepidation about data privacy.

Research by the Internet Society found that 69 per cent of respondents own one or more consumer IoT devices, such as connected meters or home assistants. But the same research found 63 per cent of people find connected devices "creepy", which would explain why 28 per cent of those who do not own a smart device would not buy one due to apprehension about where and how their private data is being collected, stored and processed.

So, it's imperative that tech leaders take a sympathetic approach to developing and implementing IoT projects. Civica recommends a three-stage process.

Firstly, organisations should carefully consider how they can use existing devices, including legacy infrastructure which can be repurposed or instrumented. That can also mean leveraging smart devices that citizens are already using, such as fitness trackers and mobile phones, as well as in-home sensors and assistants. These can all share a stream of data for analysis, while lowering the initial capital investment for public bodies.

Secondly, planners must focus on trust, particularly when it comes to how older and more vulnerable people can be engaged in IoT or connected device projects that could potentially deliver great benefits to them. This includes ensuring that data is protected, and that consent protocols are meaningful.

The third factor is to simply 'join the dots' - ostensibly thinking beyond use cases based on enhancing existing devices and processes and taking a different approach altogether. Leaders need to find ways to "safely link data insights from wearables, with data from our homes and wider communities" says Civica. This offers the potential for "truly personalised services as well as population insights" that can enable targeted support for those who are most vulnerable.

It's clear that when it comes to IoT, the foundational technology is already here and can provide a springboard for transforming how government and the public sector in general plan and deliver essential services, both in the short and longer term.

But it's also clear that this is more than just an IT project. For the technology to benefit society as a whole, organisations need to listen to both users and the right partners. Because the ultimate beneficiaries should actually be humans.

Sponsored by Civica.

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