Internet of Things

When the forest is calling the fire brigade - how the Internet of Things can help us solving problems in the future.

The next big internet revolution is already knocking at the door, and beginning to conquer our fridges, toilet flushes and cars. It is the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT), through which devices and machines can communicate with each other, and through which many everyday processes can take place in a fully automated way, without any action from humans. Somehow it instils fear in us, but it also offers enormous possibilities.

By the year 2020, it is expected that there will be 50 billion networked gadgets – which would mean there were more things hooked up to each other than people. What exactly is this phenomenon all about? What is the social reach of the Internet of Things? How can it contribute to resolving social problems?

How Smart Devices Become Autonomous

The Internet of Things connects real-world objects virtually. Fitted with the right sensors, individually identifiable objects become intelligent and exchange information with each other via an infrastructure similar to the internet.

The multitude of information and data that is communicated in this way is then evaluated according to algorithms by specific software applications, and triggers a particular action that has been predetermined to be appropriate. This action is carried out without any further human intervention.

Naturally humans are the people who initiate these processes at the outset: they install the sensors and actuators, program the software, define the goals and control at least the functionality and performance of the system. But more and more all necessary input variables, maintenance work and even adaptations to better achieve system objectives can be requested, monitored and performed by the device itself. The result of this is a self-perpetuating process which continues to improve and become more intelligent over time. 

The Social Side of the Internet of Things

Fields of application for IoT solutions are very complex and range from smart industry applications and optimised agricultural practices up to the intelligent organisation of cities and healthcare provision, energy usage or environmental protection. The significant media attention that the IoT is currently receiving is also strongly driven by the economic power that lies dormant within this innovation.

An important branch is represented by so-called “wearables” – small computer systems that users wears on their bodies, and which measure data about things such as pulse rate, body temperature and movement, and then forward this on. The market for these devices – such as the Apple watch, for example – is continuously growing by millions of Euros in turnover every year. In agriculture as well, where networked machines and optimised crops imply big gains in efficiency, the market volume in the USA is currently estimated at 1.3 billion dollars.

From the non-profit perspective, we are mainly interested in IoT problem-solving approaches which also bring a social impact, particularly for less privileged people. In our analysis then, the human is the most important beneficiary of mechanical self-reliance. Here as well, the bandwidth of possible spheres of application is broad – because we like to show trends through concrete examples, we’re going to focus on problem solving in the area of environmental protection and natural disaster management.

The Ideal Preconditions for a Social Internet of Things

Sensors are not just becoming increasingly affordable, but also smaller and more robust. With this, it is not just costs for manufacturing and maintenance that are falling, but the possibilities of deployment are also increasing in all areas – and this includes the social sector. Added to this is the fact that there is already specialised Free Open Source Software (FOSS) that anybody can use to process the data emitted by the sensors for their own purposes.

An example of this is the open physical computing platform Arduino, which provides software and hardware with which interactive objects are controlled and are connected with computer software applications. Or open data services like Opensensors, by means of which millions of data streams from every networked device can be transmitted in real time via the internet. And finally, there are also software platforms like xively, through which well processed data is made publicly available.

Since open source software is also gaining in maturity, the technical know-how of the user no longer has to be so advanced. The access to the Internet of Things is becoming increasingly simple and affordable.

Gone Online: Sensors Transmit Water Quality

Innovative sensors that are placed directly in waterways make it possible for water quality and their fluctuations to be continually measured and transmitted, so that immediate measures can be taken to address them. The Water Innovation Centre at Bath University has developed a very affordable sensor for this which measures the percentage of toxins in drinking water with the help of bacterial cultures, and sounds an alarm when necessary.

The robust Smart Water Platform from the company Libelium also provides an exact image of water quality and is particularly suited to being positioned in difficult to reach locations or in harsh conditions.

Always up to Date: Water Levels in Real Time

Water levels can also be measured and transmitted by sensor. In the future, wells all over the place might be fitted with cheap measuring devices so that the people don’t have to walk for kilometres for nothing, but can rather be informed in advance via electronic means. For people or for non-profit organisations who have financially supported the construction of a well, it would then become very transparent whether their donation was used effectively or not.

In New York, the project Don’t Flush Me helps to protect inner-city water canals from contamination with the help of an IoT application. Whenever sewage drains – measured by sensors – exceed a critical level, the neighbourhood is warned directly so that they can avoid sending more sewage into the pipeline for a while. 

Sensors for Everyone – A Bottom-Up Approach for Better Air

Air pollution is a life-threatening plague in many places across the world, in particular in the capitals of Africa and South-East Asia. According to the figures of the World Health Organisation (WHO), around seven million people die as a result of air pollution; almost 90 per cent of the worldwide urban population breathes air which has concentrations of pollutants above the maximum recommended levels. For a comprehensive picture, the previously transmitted data is usually not sufficient, or they are transmitted with expensive sensors and not shared with the public.

A new generation of cheap, internet-ready measuring devices offer the possibility to measure the relevant values at minimal cost, in a very decentralised way, without missing any areas. They can help to complement the public readings and to at least roughly checking their accuracy. An example of this is the Air Quality Egg, an egg-shaped device that receives the respective local ratings of carbon monoxide and nitric oxide levels via wifi from an external sensor, and sends this in real time via the internet to the open data service Opensensors. Via the Xively platform, data is visualised and made accessible to regular people.

Further examples of these kinds of affordable measuring devices that anyone can use are the Smart Citizen Kit, the DustDuino and the Motes from Wimoto. Using a YouTube instruction video, you can build the devices yourself, and for just 55 US-dollars, you can monitor the air quality right outside your own front door. People will certainly make the valid criticism that the quality and comparability of the data from such devices is not yet able to keep up with those of established, expensive measuring devices – but they still deliver valuable data. Also, they create an improved understanding of air quality in the area, and this may make people think more about their behaviour, which in the end will lead to better air quality.

Environmental Protection through IoT Applications

The causes of the poor air quality in major cities is above all car traffic and the burning of carbon, oil and gas. Inefficient energy use in buildings also plays a part. According to a study from the climate research group Carbon War Room, the Internet of Things can contribute to reducing annual CO2 emissions by 9.1 gigatonnes, which corresponds to about 17 per cent of annual emissions. That would be a huge step on the way to saving the climate, which could be achieved above all through the use of intelligent devices in the fields of energy, traffic planning and agriculture.

Smart solutions that efficiently structure private and industrial energy use and which also find ideal routes for planes, boats and cars without traffic jams and long searches for parking spots would contribute the lion’s share here. But efficient farming practices, optimised animal husbandry and networked machines would also lead to immense resource savings in agriculture, which at the same time would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Warnings in the Case of Disaster

Sensors cannot actually avert disasters, but through early detection, they can help to get affected people to safety in time. This is how bushfires and flooding have been recognised in Spain, with the help of Libelium sensors. The sensors capture parameters on trees that change in bushfires (temperature, air humidity, CO2 and CO). When critical combinations of these readings occur, the fire brigade is immediately informed. With the help of sensors, they receive the specific GPS coordinates in order to directly locate the fire. Similarly, in rivers and dams, water levels and movements are recorded with the help of sensors, and transmitted quickly when critical levels are reached.

A few years ago, Rio de Janeiro was hit by a terrible storm that left many people dead. Following this, in cooperation with IBM Smarter Cities, the city founded the Rio Operations Centre. Control stations record data on water supplies, the electricity network, weather and traffic, and send them directly on to the Centre.

In the case of an emergency– which can range from traffic disruptions to severe storms – the Operations Centre informs its more than 50,000 followers via Twitter and sends notifications via SMS or email.




Our world is becoming more networked every day. Primarily for designers, developers and companies, the Internet of Things provides a playground for developing products and applications that have never existed before. But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves: we are really standing right at the starting line. For many of these things, including the examples mentioned here, there is still the need for some person to be somewhere coordinating the use of the data being transmitted. It is only when devices and machines carry out actions entirely without our intervention that the Internet of Things reaches its full development according to its definition.

Though many find this promising, for others, this process raises a lot of questions about how we are to confront new, previously unknown challenges. This scepticism applies above all, though is not limited to, the social sector. In this field, it is primarily weak, disadvantaged groups who should profit – do we want to hand over all responsibility for their well-being to data, algorithms and machines?

For this reason, some experts who work in the field of the Internet of Things have decided to set out a manifesto in which they have nailed down a Code of Conduct for themselves and for others. Without claiming to be complete, and welcoming comments and add-ons, they commit for example only to develop products that have a genuine use for people, which benefit all participants and stakeholders and which conform to certain security and data privacy requirements.