Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Subnets of Things

I’ve been spending some time lately thinking about the Internet of Things, and began to wonder how we might get from ‘here’ (with an increasing number of connected devices, but typically connected in vertically integrated stovepipes rather than in a horizontally integrated way) to ‘there’ (the fully fledged Internet of Things).

The reality is that, right now, the world of connected devices could best be characterised as multiple ‘Intranets of Things’. For example many homes now have connected smart meters, but the data that these produce is generally used for a single purpose (analysing, pricing and billing power consumption). Likewise, the information generated by fleet tracking systems are generally used to better manage a fleet. And so forth. There are very few situations in which information collected for one purpose is used for a really different purpose, although there are some (for instance mobile operators selling location information to train operators, so that those operators know how many people are on their trains).

The next step must then be around integrated ‘islands’ of connected devices, which we could term ’Subnets of Things’. These would typically be driven by either a single point of control, single point of data aggregation, or potentially a common cause. For example, it is not hard to envisage an emerging subnet of things around a smart city: local authorities would often have access to data relating to congestion charging, public transport, parking space availability, air pollution and potentially a whole range of other data sources. It would not be hard for a local authority to analyse these data sources in such a way as to generate conclusions that are informed by multiple information sources. Similarly, a local health authority (or health insurance company) will clearly have access to information derived from multiple sources, and will clearly be incentivised to mine that information to gain new understanding of illnesses. Qualcomm’s 2Net M2M health platform (designed to support connected healthcare solutions from many different manufacturers) may potentially be another example.

But to move from these ‘Subnets of Things’ to a full ‘Internet of Things’ environment will be a difficult step. It will involve aligning data points from a huge range of data sources, ideally at an individual user, or individual device level. Cue all manner of privacy and standardisation issues. Establishing a fully-fledged ‘Internet of Things’ will be far harder than establishing simple ‘Subnets of Things’. And I wonder if there is much more value that can be derived from an ‘Internet of Things’ when compared to ‘Subnets of Things’. Sure, it helps if an ambulance driver has access to ‘smart city’ traffic flow information, and if the ‘smart city’ can react to ease the path of that ambulance. But that is surely a marginal benefit when compared to the benefits that can be derived from a (much more achievable) integrated health ‘Subnet of Things’, in terms of disease management and treatment?

I wonder if the key to the ‘Internet of Things’ is actually to look for the tipping points of a range of ‘Subnets of Things’?