The Internet of Things and trust: time for a ‘grown-up discussion’

17 Jun 2015, 2:49 pm

Event: Local Digital Futures Thought Leadership briefing

The Local Digital Futures Thought Leaders debate held last week in London brought together some of the leading lights in central and local government, suppliers and research bodies to discuss implementation of ‘Internet of Things’ systems to improve public services.

Local_Digital_eveningThe discussion focused on how the technology could reduce the pressure on local authority services and explored the barriers to take up, following on from a day-long, free event aimed at local government service managers and decision makers.

Internet of Things describes the network of interconnected devices, systems, and services within a web-based infrastructure to automate services and functions.

In the Internet of Things enabled city, anything with a smart chip in it can be connected to another device, office or a control centre via web-enabled sensors to send and transmit data remotely, including traffic sensors, building controls, healthcare monitors, lampposts and household appliances.

It can seem like a scene straight out of The Jetson’s, but Microsoft’s UK Managing Director Michel Van Der Bel highlighted that in fact, much of the technology was not new. “Rolls Royce did it a long time ago with technology that remotely monitored plane engine health”, he said. He said that one of the reasons that Internet of Things programmes are increasing now is that sensors and hardware are cheaper, and thanks to the maturity of cloud computing maturity, flexibility and scaling are easier.

He also suggested that smart systems should not be seen as adjuncts to existing technology programmes. “Internet of Things is not a separate service, it’s part of a bigger overall strategy” he said.

Lead Technologist for Internet of Things at Government’s Innovate UK Jonny Voon echoed his view. “There are benefits for the city, but it shouldn’t stop there. There should be benefits for the region and the environment too”, he said. “Internet of Things is not just about a little piece of technology, but the greater good”.

Paramount to a successful programme, said Voon, where you “treat the city as a platform, and the city acts as the data source”, was to ensure that that the technology works well – “so people don’t even know they’re using it” – that usability is strong; and that people simply want to use the technology.

There are still vital challenges to tackle, such as how to deal with traditional models of consent around data given the pervasiveness of smart city technology, so that people were aware of the need for consent “as they walk down the street”. The perception at the moment that Internet of Things “seems big and scary” doesn’t help, Voon said. But on a more positive note, he said that “the technology is there to protect us”.

Jos Creese, expanded on the data security challenges. The former CIO of Hampshire County Council and President of the British Computer Society said that key to resolving any potential trust problems would be the ability to opt out; transparency; and a review of legislation including the Data Protection Act to accommodate Internet of Things related security issues.

And despite some impressive local authority programmes, it was important to bring end users – residents – into the debate or risk slowing down progress caused by increasingly paranoid public. “The public won’t fall for it. The next generation is much less risk averse than my generation”, he said. The Press could also play a major role in fear around adoption of the technology Creese said.

He said that developing the business case was not a problem, but how to do so at scale and joining up across boundaries particularly in the areas of ID, trust and infrastructure presented the greatest challenges. “Fundamental re-engineering is not going to be enough”, he said.

Help may be at hand when it comes to tackling the trust issues. InnovateUK, along with several bodies including the Digital and Future Cities Catapults, NHS England, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Government Communication Headquarters, has launched a competition for investment of up to £10 million in projects for the Commitment to Privacy and Trust in Internet of Things Security (ComPaTrIoTS) Research Hub. Seeking collaborative R&D projects to support the industries that make up a smart city, including transport, healthcare and energy, the deadline to submit an intention to apply is 20 July.

“We need to have a discussion with the public and be more grown up about it”, Creese said, and this includes communicating the benefits clearly to the public. “Genuine safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that civil liberties are protected”, he said.

Not all local authorities encounter resistance from the public. Sarah Gonsalves, Head of Performance and Information at Milton Keynes Council, said that her team applies the ‘What’s in it for me?’ test. “We didn’t have any problems when we put sensors in our bins”, Gonsalves said.

Milton Keynes has become one of the UK’s major test centres for smart cities, with Government recently name-checking the programme in its review on how Government and businesses can make best use of the ‘Internet of things’. Funded by InnovateUK and private sector partners, the council has deployed sensors in communal bins to track collections and waste levels under its Internet of Things programme. It is also at the early stages of the development of driverless cars.

Kent County Council’s Head of ICT Business Development Debbie Johnson agreed. She said that residents participating in her organisation’s programme had “felt in control” of their data.

Johnson leads a programme which has seen smart technology used to help older people to live more independently at home. The project has been connecting devices such as blood pressure monitors to gather information directly from the patient, cutting out the need for them to visit their GP or make a hospital visit. Data is shared remotely by carers so they can provide tailored services when they make a visit, working proactively rather than reactively.

“It’s an opportunity to organise ourselves differently. It’s an opportunity to develop new models”, Johnson said, using the example of Amazon’s impact on the music retail industry as a point of reference. “It’s an opportunity to organise services around individuals and really mean it”.

Video stories from the event will be posted in the coming week.

What are your views? Add your thoughts to the Local Digital survey ‘What does the Internet of Things mean to your council?’ here.