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June 24 2011

Radar's top stories: June 20-24, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published on Radar this week.

How is HTML 5 changing web development?
Remy Sharp discusses HTML5's current usage and how it could influence the future of web apps and browsers (hint: in time, we may not notice browsers at all.)
Big data and open source unlock genetic secrets
Genomics scientist Charlie Quinn is combining experimental data with publicly available information to advance the life sciences.

Scale your JavaScript, scale your team
"High Performance JavaScript" author Nicholas Zakas discusses the issues that pop up when you build big JavaScript apps with big teams.

The smart grid data deluge
The smart grid is an information revolution for utilities, and the first line of the information the grid uses will come from smart meters. EMeter's Aaron DeYonker discusses meter use and data applications in this interview.
9 digital book-making tools
As a preview for his upcoming free webcast, Pete Meyers offers a quick overview of digital tools used for app and ebook creation.

OSCON Java 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is focused on open source technologies that make up the Java ecosystem. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

May 20 2011

With M2M, the machines do all the talking

M2M screenshotThe shift from transporting voice to delivering data has transformed the business of mobile carriers, but there's yet another upheaval on the horizon: machine to machine communications (M2M).

In M2M, devices and sensors communicate with each other or a central server rather than with human beings. Theses device often use an embedded SIM card for communication over the mobile network. Applications include automotive, smartgrid, healthcare and environmental usages.

M2M traffic differs from human-generated voice and data traffic. Mobile carriers are adapting by creating entirely new companies for M2M, such as Telenor's M2M carrier Telenor Connexion, and m2o city, Orange's joint venture with water giant Veolia. I talked to Göran Brandt, head of business development at Telenor Connexion and Rodolphe Fruges, VP of M2M at Orange Business Services about the future of mobile and M2M.

Why did Telenor start Telenor Connexion?

Göran Brandt: Telenor Connexion was founded in 2008. We knew from our experience with running business-critical applications on the normal mobile infrastructure that it was not good enough. A system originally built to serve voice services, mobile office applications, etc. is not ideal for M2M. This could lead to disturbances or downtime due to normal mobile service windows. For example at night, voice customers are expected to be sleeping.

Why did Orange launch a mobile service operator specifically for water metering data?

Rodolphe Fruges: Smart metering for utilities — water, electricity and gas — is a relatively new market where we see key advances in M2M taking place. To address this market, Orange has joined forces with Veolia Eau, a market leader in the water industry, to create m2o city, a joint venture dedicated to smart metering.

To be clear, m2o city is not a "mobile operator." That would require a GSM license. Rather, it is a "service operator" that provides the low-energy radio network that carries water metering data on behalf of local water distribution companies.

OSCON Data 2011, being held July 25-27 in Portland, Ore., is a gathering for developers who are hands-on, doing the systems work and evolving architectures and tools to manage data. (This event is co-located with OSCON.)

Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

How is the data carried in M2M applications different from human-generated data?

Göran Brandt: In M2M applications the amount of data sent and received is normally small. A meter reading equals only a few hundred bytes of data. M2M devices can cause problems if working incorrectly. If hundreds of thousands or even millions of electricity meters act at exactly the same time (they normally have a very precise built-in clock), that would result in network congestion.

Rodolphe Fruges: The difference is not the data itself but where the data originates, in this case self-contained mobile devices. These devices are generating a huge amount of data with more frequency. With m2o city, utility companies are dealing with 700 times more data than before. This is why service providers like Orange, who have the expertise and technical infrastructure to accommodate these data loads, are vital for these companies.

The data also varies between applications. For water metering, we are typically dealing with a very small data set, a few times a day, at regular hours. For security applications, the device can be silent for months before sending a large data payload, in this case video.

What network management strategies, technologies or processes does M2M rely on?

Göran Brandt: For a normal mobile carrier the customer interface is usually the customer help desk. In M2M you need to let your customers into your technical systems, so they can, in real time, see the status of their SIM card population and answer questions like "What country is a specific SIM card in?" and "Is the SIM card connected to a mobile data network or not?"

Rodolphe Fruges: Creating processes and mechanisms are really essential for smart metering. You have to manage millions of devices with very specialized SIM cards across varying environmental conditions. A phone user can easily call a help desk to report a problem with his or her phone, but the device itself cannot make this call. The challenge on our end is to create automatic mechanisms that can validate whether a device is working or identify the source of any potential problems.

Certain M2M applications, such as streaming security videos, generate a high volume of data comparable to the data streaming occurring on mobile phones, but you can also find M2M alert applications running SMS data levels. What changes is the number of devices that are being managed rather than the volume of data.

A key issue with smart metering is meters situated in hard-to-reach areas, such as basements where it may be rough to get a strong mobile signal. The solution is network intermarries, which is like a meshed radio network that grabs the data from a meter and sends it to a data concentrator. This is exactly the type of network technology you will see deployed with m2o city. It's also applicable in other M2M scenarios, like a connected automobile that is roaming across networks. We constantly adapt to the least cost network when roaming or alert our customer when an event, like a vehicle that might be stolen crossing a border, are triggered on the network.


What are the biggest current M2M applications? What do you see developing in the near future?

Göran Brandt: Automotive (cars and trucks), energy (smart metering) and security (burglar alarms).The automotive industry is a sector where Telenor Connexion has extensive experience. We are working in close collaboration with both car manufacturers and telematics service providers to enable cost-efficient and reliable connectivity solutions to vehicles around the world.

There are massive smart metering deployments currently being planned. The energy sector is moving toward renewable energy sources and the implementation of smart grids. Intelligent meters are going to form the foundation of tomorrow's smart grid infrastructure.

Healthcare monitoring via wireless networks is an emerging application area with huge potential. Tens of millions of patients in Europe alone could potentially benefit from some form of home healthcare monitoring solution, if it had been available. Examples of conditions suitable for remote monitoring are cardiac arrhythmia, hypertension, sleep apnea and diabetes.

Are there obstacles preventing M2M applications from become mainstream?

Göran Brandt: Most M2M customers work in a multi-country or even global scenario (basically all countries where they sell their products), and they expect a single solution covering multiple networks in multiple countries. It's a challenge to provide flat pricing in multi-country roaming situations. It's equally challenging to offer M2M customers Service Level Agreements stating exactly what uptime and availability to expect, including roaming networks.

Rodolphe Fruges: The M2M applications are enormous, but it has led to some fragmentation in the market. Verticals such as the automotive industry have been hampered by the number of competitive players trying to outdo one another. A lack of standardization has also been a deterrent impeding newer and more reliable M2M solutions.

Photo: Screenshot from Telenor Connexion website


April 28 2011

Interest in renewable energy could benefit data services

Google noted that a recent investment of $100 million will assist in enabling the Shepherds Flat Wind Farm to become the world's largest wind farm by 2012. This follows Google's $168 million solar investment into the BrightSource Energy tower project. The company has now invested nearly $350 million into clean energy to date.

Such investments from non-traditional cleantech investors are starting to receive more attention. The sustainable increase of large-scale infrastructure investments in the alternative energy sector will likely be accompanied by a rise in the demand for data-driven services that can help optimize efficiency of the related operational costs.

Enter the growing need for timely and accurate weather data. Last month I touched upon the potential for the weather services sector to contribute their expertise to the smart grid arena. Demand anticipation, efficient raw material utilization, baseload and peak usage forecasting, logistics planning — these are just a few of the many areas where atmospheric analytics can contribute to this growing global market. More frequent and more precise weather data can help utilities anticipate demand surges, and in the process reduce both unnecessary expenditures and unnecessary emissions. Such supporting weather data is not just limited to the network of government-maintained observation stations — cheap ubiquitous sensors can be placed just about anywhere, and granular data that can help make a decision more efficient translates to more streamlined raw material procurement and utilization, not to mention lower costs passed on to the consumer.

At many energy conferences of late containing the cleantech theme (look at the Green:Net event event sponsored by GigaOm), there has been a lot of talk around the benefits of "smart" meters and "smart" algorithms, which will in part be used to help transform the energy infrastructure. These tools and techniques can only truly be considered smart if they are embedded with ambient data feeds that can supply accurate data streams, which can be developed into weather-driven efficiency algorithms (largely based upon persistence). The resultant algorithms can then help to enable the energy management systems to operate in sync with their surroundings — in essence, becoming smarter.

As short-range demand anticipation models are largely based on a set of standard assumptions, there will be limited human involvement once a system is constructed (as long as good input data is available), and this will fit in nicely with the functionality associated with automated demand response systems. WeatherTrends360 provides examples of granular hourly weather data feeds and displays that can be embedded into such systems (see chart below). While the cornerstone of applied modeling (garbage in = garbage out) is implicit, it should be noted that a smart algorithm will only be as good as the data upon which it has been trained.

Weather chart

As the shift toward increasing the share that renewables make up in the total energy-generating matrix gathers momentum, the need for data services providing temperature, wind, and solar analytics will strengthen. Look for innovative ways in which the weather industry, including both data providers and forecasters, can generate new sources of returns in this space, as the industry evolves.

March 19 2010

Current activities at the Electronic Information Privacy Center

When Marc Rotenberg founded the Electronic
Information Privacy Center
in 1994, I doubt he realized how fast
their scope would swell as more and more of our lives became digitized
and networked. Now it seems like everything that happens in society
has an electronic component and a privacy component. I had the chance
to drop in to their office on Monday and heard about the
front-burner items they're working on.

  • Whole-body imaging in airports, a very hot issue right now. While
    Americans push back against it, the European Union has to vote on it

  • The Smart Grid: a massive upgrade planned for the American system for
    delivering electricity across the nation as well as over the last mile
    to your home. Could the Smart Grid tell marketers your life style?

  • Privacy of text messaging. EPIC is very active on City of Ontario
    v. Quon
    , where the government asserts that using a city-issued
    device allows the city to read all of the employee's messages.

  • Freedom of Information Act. Why are government agencies (except for a
    few exemplary ones) fulfilling a smaller percentage of
    demands during the Obama administration than they did during the Bush

  • Ballot initiatives. EPIC has argued in Doe v. Reed that
    signing a petition to put a question on a ballot should be private,
    like voting.

And if you visit the EPIC home page this week, or the companion href=""> page, you'll see that
they're following even more diverse issues: the FCC broadband
proposal, consumer privacy, data retention by ISPs, etc. They were
interested to hear what I've been learning recently about privacy in
electronic health records.

EPIC has been remarkably effective over the years as an organization
with about a dozen staff (mostly young and idealistic rather than
canny and seasoned) and no cash-wielding lobbyists. They haven't
compromised their principles in the dozen years I've been following
them, but they not only get to the table most of the time but manage
to bend the decision their way most of the time.

I attribute this success to single-mindedness (they can nail the
privacy chink in any initiative) persistence, coalition-building with
like minded organizations (leading the href="">Privacy Coalition,
collaborating with London's href="">Privacy International,
among other organizations around the world, and work closely with such
natural allies as the ACLU), but mostly knowing their stuff cold. They
sail into debate with a full understanding of technical details as
well as the legal issues that impinge on their position.

The Smart Grid is an excellent example of how EPIC investigates an
issue early in its existence and hones in on the dark underside. The
Smart Grid is a buzzword covering changes that should save us huge
amounts of electricity lost in old, inefficient switches, as well as
improve the efficiency of energy delivery in neighborhoods. A key part
of the Smart Grid is monitoring and logging our electricity usage,
building by building and even machine by machine.

In this futuristic vision, the electric utility would know when you've
started your air conditioner or clothes dryer and could send you
messages suggesting new patterns of behavior that will relieve
pressure on the grid and save you money as well. This is nice, but it
also means the electric utility basically knows how you lead your

Traffic analysis on your device usage could show who stays home during
the day, when kids come home from school, and who plays video games
(heavy electricity usage from a home computer) late at night.

Currently no one has discussed who controls this data. Implicitly, it
is left in the hands of the utility, which is free to sell it like any
other information. There is little doubt that advertisers would love
to get their hands on this information. So would the government, I
bet--remember when police were scanning homes for evidence of
marijuana cultivation? EPIC would like the information to be in the
hands of the consumer.

A bill just introduced by Representative Ed Markey, the href="">"Electric
Consumer Right to Know Act" (H. R. 4860), would inform electricity
users of their energy usage in a form they could process on a computer
or other device, typically every 15 minutes. The bill mandates a smart
meter that "provides adequate protections for the security of such
information and the privacy of such electric consumer." It doesn't go
into any more detail about what the utility could do with the

The ambiguous ownership of Smart Grid data illustrates why privacy is
such a hard turf to defend, once you have declared your jurisdiction
over it as EPIC has done. Data flows from one place to
another--whether from the electric meter to your cell phone, your
camera to Facebook, or your vendor to your bank--and is therefore
intrinsically shared. Privacy is an umbrella term that encompass
attempts to set limits or impose rules on all these types of sharing.

In trying to protect our privacy EPIC is swimming against the tide, of
course, but what's really challenging is how data collection and
dissemination has shifted. When EPIC started, most electronic data was
held by large institutions who made ready targets for EPIC's legal
challenges. Now each person is his or her own worst enemy, freely
sharing personal information, pictures, and videos online--a
phenomenon termed Little Brother.

Cameras and sensors are also creating millions of new sources for
data, while advances in data mining and analysis allow people to learn
more from the data than ever before.

I think EPIC is handling this shift well. They stay focused on policy
rather than pursuing the idealistic but impractical course of training
people to use privacy safeguards and protect themselves. There are
just too many ways to weasel data out of us, some of which will never
be under our control, and most people just can't learn everything they
need to know to be safe, whether it be about Web proxies, Flash
cookies, or document metadata.

EPIC demands that institutions take responsibility for privacy,
designing it into their systems. A recent, well publicized example of
this doctrine was their complaint to the FTC about Facebook's changes
to privacy settings in December 2009. EPIC doesn't believe it's enough
to boast about flexibility and user control--something that endangers
the 99.9% of users who don't understand how to change a default is a
violation of users' rights.

But EPIC is neither rigid nor abstentionist. They may complain about
Facebook, but maintain a Facebook page. They're totally into the new
electronic age. But they want it to serve its users rather than a few
centralized institutions, and for privacy advocates they're not shy
about letting us know what they think.

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