Navigant Research Blog

Learning from Facebook’s Mistakes

— May 17, 2018

For those of us who abstain from social media, the ongoing scandal with Cambridge Analytica has validated this decision to opt-out. However, the decision to opt-in or opt-out of data collection and still be able to use Facebook is not available. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle shines a light on the issue of collecting data from unassuming consumers and on how that data is used and manipulated. No matter how policymakers respond to this event, their decisions will have wide-reaching implications for all data-sharing industries, especially for the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.

Can Lawmakers Bring Clarity to Data Collection Ethics?

Data protection laws in the US are relatively new and continue to evolve on an ad hoc basis in response to ongoing data hacks and security breaches. Addressing these issues requires a more sophisticated regulatory environment that considers how data is being collected and used. This brings up an ethical concern—when a company’s profitability depends on sharing user information, the ethics of data collection become muddled. Lawmakers in Europe are some of the first to respond to these issues. In April, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was finally approved after 4 years of preparation and debate. GDPR will replace the EU’s Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and will take effect May 25, 2018. Changes to the directive include extending the law’s jurisdiction to apply to all processors of personal data, regardless of whether the processing takes place in the EU or not.

Laws like GDPR will have a significant impact on the data-sharing industry, especially for businesses that rely on tracking consumer behavior through IoT-enabled devices. These laws require that companies clearly and succinctly spell out their intentions for data collection in their user agreement contracts. Ensuring that all parties clearly understand the service terms strengthens conditions for consumer consent and gives consumers more control over their personal data. The policy’s push for greater transparency may force some businesses to rethink their approach to data collection. Manufacturers of smart devices are thus encouraged to move away from long terms of service and instead, provide real-time information with opt-in choices.

Industries Must Build Trust with Consumers

Informing consumers on how their data will be collected and used will help to alleviate privacy concerns and build trust. As technology continues to advance in making phones, cars, and buildings smarter, it’s important for businesses operating in these data-driven industries to build a trusting consumer base. Doing so will enhance the competitiveness of those buildings as customers will be more willing to consent to new user agreements. Manufacturers of smart devices can avoid making the same mistakes as Facebook by taking note from the EU and being more transparent in their user agreement contracts. Both providers and consumers of smart devices stand to benefit from stronger protections to prevent future abuse.


New Technology Announcements Portend a Smarter IoT

— May 10, 2018

The Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem is about to get smarter. Leading technology vendors have recently announced new products and integrations intended to push greater intelligence to the edge, derive deeper insights through analytics, and heighten security. Utilities should take note.

Qualcomm Offering a New Chip-Based Platform

Qualcomm’s new Vision Intelligence Platform is part of this trend. The Qualcomm platform features the chipmaker’s first family of system-on-chips (SoCs) built specifically for the IoT using an advanced 10 nm FinFET (Fin Field Effect Transistor) process that produces substantially faster performance and efficiencies than previous chips. The platform’s chip models, QCS605 and QCS603, are designed to provide greater computing power for on-device cameras and machine learning. The company envisions these chips being used for a variety of applications, including robots, the smart home, and smart cameras. For utilities, these could become valuable in cameras mounted amid critical infrastructure such as substations, or in drones that monitor the grid.

Microsoft Promoting Its Own System

Similarly, Microsoft has introduced Azure Sphere, a new custom SoC operating system for the IoT. Azure Sphere has its own flavor of a Linux kernel, and includes a new security subsystem called Pluton. The idea is to provide greater IoT device security starting from the microcontroller level and moving up from there to the cloud. For example, Pluton is designed to prevent malicious code from tampering with firmware on a device, which could be quite useful for a utility or energy provider that oversees over-the-air upgradeable smart meters or sensors connected to the grid. The first certified hardware based on Azure Sphere is expected to be available later in 2018.

Other Offerings in This Market

SoftBank Group’s Arm semiconductor subsidiary announced enhanced capabilities for its Mbed IoT platform during Hannover Messe, one of the world’s largest industrial technology events, held annually in Germany. The Mbed platform, designed to help companies connect, secure, manage, and provision IoT devices, will now integrate Mbed’s Cloud solution with IBM’s Watson IoT and artificial intelligence platform. Arm also announced a collaboration with Cybertrust and GlobalSign in a bid to give industrial customers the flexibility to use their own security certificates in IoT deployments, something utilities are likely to appreciate given their penchant for managing and controlling their devices and systems in their own way.

Just a Glimpse of Market Momentum

None of these vendor moves will happen overnight, of course. They are cutting edge and will take months or even years to gain widespread adoption; some might even fizzle or fail. Nonetheless, they indicate vendors’ strong emphasis on the IoT, whether the focus is at the edge, in the cloud, or on security (for a deeper look at IoT security, see Navigant Research’s Managing IoT Cybersecurity Threats in the Energy Cloud Ecosystem). Momentum is building, and utilities need to stay apprised of how advances in IoT technologies could enhance their grid operations.


The Lowly Utility Pole Receives Some IoT Attention

— May 8, 2018

The lowly utility pole is getting some time in the Internet of Things (IoT) spotlight. Ameren and technology vendor Atomation are testing IoT sensors on utility poles at a site in Champaign, Illinois. The main objective is to discover how the pole-mounted sensors could help lower maintenance costs and shorten repair response times.

How Does IoT Help with Utility Poles?

The project focuses on two sensor designs, one developed by Atomation that can be nailed to the side of a wooden pole, and the other by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that can be attached to the top of the pole, to cross-arms, or to lines. The idea is to give the pole a bit of a brain, so when it leans too much or topples, the sensor could send an alert along with vital information to the utility’s headend.

For instance, a downed pole could let the utility know its precise location, size, and the number of cross-arms. A repair crew could then be dispatched directly to that exact location and be prepared with the needed equipment, reducing time and eliminating the need for a second trip to fetch parts.

The Ameren project—still in its early phase—calls for the installation of 15 pilot sensors on utility poles in Champaign. Ameren officials are hopeful the trial will prove beneficial to operations, but they need clear evidence the sensors provide tangible ROI benefits before moving ahead with a broader rollout.

The Internet of Power Poles?

In Australia, network provider Meshnet is promoting a similar use case for utility poles. The startup has developed solar-powered devices that operate over a proprietary wireless network. Once installed on poles, the devices can detect tiny movements and send signals to a utility that a pole needs servicing or replacing.

The company is also considering adding temperature, humidity, wind velocity, atmospheric pressure, and rain sensors to devices installed every 2.5 km on power poles to provide more granular weather data to a system. The company has yet to announce any deals with utilities, but it claims those are close. Perhaps with enough sensors and data flowing it could help create the Internet of Power Poles.

This Use Case Is Just One Example of IoT Potential

Though both efforts are more experimental at this stage, they do point out how new and more affordable IoT technologies can reshape the value proposition for something as common as a utility pole. Sensors and communications modules are now quite cheap compared to just a few years ago. So are prices for computing power needed for analyzing all the data new IoT connections produce, especially when using a cloud service such as Amazon Web Services or Azure.

This type of experimentation also demonstrates how legacy equipment can be brought into the connected digital world to create greater business value, not just for utilities but for many other industries. This is also discussed in Navigant Research’s Industrial Internet of Things report. Sometimes the value derives not from the shiny new object, but lies instead in retrofitting the durable old one.


Facebook’s Scandal Shows Importance of Data Privacy in Smart Homes

— May 3, 2018

The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil. It’s data. In the digital era, data not only powers various online services, but also increasingly powers the real world as devices become more and more connected. Virtually any activity a person can engage in now leaves a digital footprint, and artificial intelligence technologies like machine learning have brought to light the value in these footprints. The giants in charge of this data economy—Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft—have massive power and influence. Considering recent events, this is something to be ever warier about as consumers.

Facebook’s Scandal

Facebook has been under immense scrutiny over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In short, it involves the unauthorized sale of private data to companies that used the data to manipulate the US presidential election and arguably other major global events.

Until now, the added convenience a technology like Facebook brings to our lives—such as relevant news, event planning, and the ability to connect with friends and family—has seemed like a price worth paying in exchange for our data. What this story shows about the tech titans who control our digital era is that our data is not only used to target us with more relevant stuff to buy. It’s also shaping the world we live in and making real-life impacts.

What Does This Mean for the Smart Home?

We are increasingly letting these big tech giants into our lives, not only through use of their traditional online services, but through physical devices in our homes. The increasingly popular and widely adopted devices peddled by these companies, be it smartphones, voice-activated speakers, connected cameras, or smart thermostats among copious other residential IoT devices, are creating touchpoints in the home by which these companies can collect even more data.

As consumers, we may think our data is fairly useless. The Facebook scandal shows that all the data we give away for free has immense real-world value. It’s more important than ever for consumers to be aware of the devices that they bring into their homes, how their data is being used, and the effects that can have, especially as the smart home market continues to grow.

Should Consumers Abandon Connected Tech?

This isn’t to say that consumers should stop using online services or avoid adopting smart home technologies—that is unrealistic. It means that as we continue to adopt connected devices, construct smart ecosystems in our homes, and divulge the details of our personal lives to these companies, data privacy needs to be top priority. This is increasingly becoming the case. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is set to take effect at the end of May, and it will massively influence any company serving EU citizens and residents by requiring measures be taken that better protect and ensure the privacy of user data. Though this is a positive development, there is much to be done in the realm of data privacy.

For consumers, it’s important to consider the worth in convenience via technology. While the prospects of a smart home can bring a range of benefits to our lives and the bigger picture of smart grid operations, the value in what we provide digitally-driven companies should not be taken for granted. For device manufacturers and smart home tech vendors, it’s more crucial than ever to be transparent and reassuring about the investments they are making in protecting our data in order to avoid losing consumer trust and hindering technology adoption.


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