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February 05 2014

Bluetooth Low Energy: what do we do with you?

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” as Jeff Hammerbacher said. And it’s not just data analysts: it’s creeping into every aspect of technology, including hardware.

One of the more exciting developments of the past year is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Unfortunately, the application that I’ve seen discussed most frequently is user tracking: devices in stores can use the BLE device in your cell phone to tell exactly where you’re standing, what you’re looking at, and target ads, offer you deals, send over salespeople, and so on.

Color me uninterested. I don’t really care about the spyware: if Needless Markup wants to know what I’m looking at, they can send someone out on the floor to look. But I am dismayed by the lack of imagination around what we can do with BLE.

If you look around, you’ll find some interesting hints about what we might be able to to with BLE:

  • The Tile app is a tag for a keychain that uses BLE to locate lost keys. In a conversation, O’Reilly author Matthew Gast suggested that you could extend the concept to develop a collar that would help to locate missing pets. That scenario requires some kind of accessibility to neighbor’s networks, but for a pie-in-the-sky discussion, it’s a good idea.
  • At ORDCamp last weekend, I was in a wide-ranging conversation about smart washing machines, wearable computing, and the like. Someone mentioned that clothes could have tags that would let the washer know when the settings were wrong, or when you had the colors mixed. This is something you could implement with BLE. Water wouldn’t be a problem since you could seal the entire device, including the battery; heat might be an issue. But again, we’re talking imagination, what might be possible. We can solve the engineering problems later.
  • One proposal for our Solid conference involved tagging garbage cans with BLE devices, to help automate garbage collection. I want to see the demo, particularly if it includes garbage trucks in a conference hall.

Why the dearth of imagination in the press and among most of the people talking about the next generation of Bluetooth apps? Why can’t we get beyond different flavors of spyware? And when BLE is widely deployed, will we see devices that at least try to improve our quality of life, or will the best minds of our generation still be pitching ads?

Come to Solid to be part of that discussion. I’m sure our future will be full of spyware. But we can at least brainstorm other more interesting, more useful, more fun applications of low-power wireless computing.

January 08 2014

The emergence of the connected city

Photo: Millertime83Photo: Millertime83

If the modern city is a symbol for randomness — even chaos — the city of the near future is shaping up along opposite metaphorical lines. The urban environment is evolving rapidly, and a model is emerging that is more efficient, more functional, more — connected, in a word.

This will affect how we work, commute, and spend our leisure time. It may well influence how we relate to one another, and how we think about the world. Certainly, our lives will be augmented: better public transportation systems, quicker responses from police and fire services, more efficient energy consumption. But there could also be dystopian impacts: dwindling privacy and imperiled personal data. We could even lose some of the ferment that makes large cities such compelling places to live; chaos is stressful, but it can also be stimulating.

It will come as no surprise that converging digital technologies are driving cities toward connectedness. When conjoined, ISM band transmitters, sensors, and smart phone apps form networks that can make cities pretty darn smart — and maybe more hygienic. This latter possibility, at least, is proposed by Samrat Saha of the DCI Marketing Group in Milwaukee. Saha suggests “crowdsourcing” municipal trash pick-up via BLE modules, proximity sensors and custom mobile device apps.

“My idea is a bit tongue in cheek, but I think it shows how we can gain real efficiencies in urban settings by gathering information and relaying it via the Cloud,” Saha says. “First, you deploy sensors in garbage cans. Each can provides a rough estimate of its fill level and communicates that to a BLE 112 Module.”

BLE112_M_RGB_frontBLE112_M_RGB_front

As pedestrians who have downloaded custom “garbage can” apps on their BLE-capable iPhone or Android devices pass by, continues Saha, the information is collected from the module and relayed to a Cloud-hosted service for action — garbage pick-up for brimming cans, in other words. The process will also allow planners to optimize trash can placement, redeploying receptacles from areas where need is minimal to more garbage-rich environs.

“It should also allow greater efficiency in determining pick-up schedules,” said Saha. “For example, in some areas regular scheduled pick-ups may be best. But managers may find it’s also a good idea to put some trash collectors on a roving basis to service cans when they’re full. That could work well for areas where there’s a great deal of traffic and cans fill up quickly but unpredictably — and conversely, in low-traffic areas, where regular pick-up isn’t necessary. Both situations would benefit from rapid-response flexibility.”

Garbage can connectivity has larger implications than just, well, garbage. Brett Goldstein, the former Chief Data and Information Officer for the City of Chicago and a current lecturer at the University of Chicago, says city officials found clear patterns between damaged or missing garbage cans and rat problems.

“We found areas that showed an abnormal increase in missing or broken receptacles started getting rat outbreaks around seven days later,” Goldstein said. “That’s very valuable information. If you have sensors on enough garbage cans, you could get a temporal leading edge, allowing a response before there’s a problem. In urban planning, you want to emphasize prevention, not reaction.”

Such Cloud-based app-centric systems aren’t suited only for trash receptacles, of course. Companies such as Johnson Controls are now marketing apps for smart buildings — the base component for smart cities. (Johnson’s Metasys management system, for example, feeds data to its app-based Paoptix Platform to maximize energy efficiency in buildings.) In short, instrumented cities already are emerging. Smart nodes — including augmented buildings, utilities and public service systems — are establishing connections with one another, like axon-linked neurons.

But Goldstein, who was best known in Chicago for putting tremendous quantities of the city’s data online for public access, emphasizes instrumented cities are still in their infancy, and that their successful development will depend on how well we “parent” them.

“I hesitate to refer to ‘Big Data,’ because I think it’s a terribly overused term,” Goldstein said. “But the fact remains that we can now capture huge amounts of urban data. So, to me, the biggest challenge is transitioning the fields — merging public policy with computer science into functional networks.”

There are other obstacles to the development of the intelligent city, of course. Among them: how do you incentivize enough people to download apps sufficient to achieve a functional connected system? Indeed, the human element could prove the biggest fly in the ointment. We may resist quantifying ourselves to such a degree, even for the sake of our cities.

On the other hand, the connected city exists to serve people, not the other way around, observes Drew Conway, senior advisor to the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and founder of the data community support group DataGotham. People ultimately act in their self-interest, and if the connected city brings boons, people will accept and support it. But attention must be paid to unintended consequences, emphasizes Conway.

“I never forget that humanity is behind all those bits of data I consume,” says Conway. “Who does the data serve, after all? Human beings decided why and where to put out those sensors, so data is inherently biased — and I always keep the human element in mind. And ultimately, we have to look at the true impacts of employing that data.”

As an example, continues Conway, “say the data tells you that an illegal conversion has created a fire hazard in a low-income residential building. You move the residents out, thus avoiding potential loss of life. But now you have poor people out on the street with no place to go. There has to be follow-through. When we talk of connections, we must ensure that some of those connections are between city services and social services.”

Like many technocrats, Conway also is concerned about possible threats to individual rights posed by data collected in the name of the commonwealth.

“One of New York’s most popular programs is expanding free public WiFi,” he says. “It’s a great initiative, and it has a lot of support. But what if an agency decided it wanted access to weblog data from high-crime areas? What are the implications for people not involved in any criminal activity? We haven’t done a good job of articulating where the lines should be, and we need to have that debate. Connected cities are the future, but I’d welcome informed skepticism on their development. I don’t think the real issue is the technical limitations — it’s the quid pro quo involved in getting the data and applying it to services. It’s about the trade-offs.”


For more on the convergence of software and hardware, check out our Solid Conference.

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