Confused by the IOT? Here’s what you need to know about the Internet of Things!
The Internet of Things continues to be at the front and centre of the digital industries and developments in technology. Unless you work in a digital business, or an associated area though, you may not be clear on what it’s all about. We take a look at some of the key issues around the IoT.
What is the Internet of Things?
It actually began as a very simple premise. The Internet of Things, or IoT, was originally coined as a collective term for all of the devices and machines that are connected to the internet. As time has gone by, the term has evolved to refer more to devices and machines that have the ability to communicate automatically. This includes everything from huge servers and mega-computers, right down to vehicles, desktops, tablets, mobiles, watches, those little buttons you can get that automatically order your teabags from Amazon, anything connected to a home control app, so you can switch the lights and heating on, pet food dispensers – we could go on; and on, but you get it, right?
In short, anything with communicative connectivity, no matter how big or small, is part of the IOT.
Where did the IOT begin?
One of the earliest uses of connecting machines was in manufacturing. The strive for efficiency meant that automated processes were developed to keep up with production demand and quality. Robots were able to work quickly, without stopping for a break and replicate every component to precise specifications. Production methods changed to accommodate the new systems, but the machines had to be able to communicate with one another. This is when machine connectivity became widespread.
For manufacturers, it’s easier to monitor the performance of their products, as they are used by consumers. Integrated sensors can feedback information on specific metrics, so the manufacturer can provide a better service. Many printers now have sensors that report back on ink levels, some manufacturers have a subscription service, where cartridges are sent out before the ink runs out. This makes a seamless service for the customer and a valuable tie-in for repeat business for the manufacturer.
The Importance of Data in the IoT
One of the most important elements of the IoT is data. This is understandable, given that data is one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Big Data refers to huge packets of information that can be processed and analysed to tell us about patterns in behaviour, associated responses and results. This helps us to predict future outcomes and to make decisions based on that information. For instance, the development of smart cities uses big data to organise facilities and resources. In cities where tourism has a big impact at specific times, data shapes and determines where services are prioritised at particular times to ensure continued delivery.
In short, Big Data enables a more strategic approach to service delivery and business development.
Online security is a massive issue and rightly so. Data, as we mentioned above, is an incredibly valuable commodity and can be exploited by criminals with devastating effects. Yet, data is the driving force behind the IoT.
Many apps and devices have to store incredibly personal data, in order to function. In May 2018, the fitness app Strava highlighted a critical flaw in the data being shared via the app. Thanks to military personnel tracking their runs, secret military installations and operational bases were highlighted and locations visible online.
Sharing this sort of activity also creates a vulnerability for users who regularly run or walk the dog at the same time, using the same route each day. Tracking someone’s movements becomes very easy and predictable. Whilst predictability is valuable for businesses when it comes to stock levels and customer service, it’s not so great for personal safety.
There are a huge number of personal devices connected to the internet, controlling different parts of our lives. As well as the smart technology we carry around with us, such as smart phones and fitness trackers, our homes are getting in on the act too. Everything from the washing machine to the central heating can be connected, online and ready to respond to remote instructions. Meanwhile, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant actively listen constantly, waiting to act when you ask them to dim the lights, play music or search for a recipe.
A lot of these devices also hold very sensitive information, including personal health records and financial details. We share details with strangers that even our mothers don’t know! However, the consistently online existence that many of us now live, means there are many opportunities for hackers.
The UK Government considers cyber security so important that it now has measures in place to ensure it’s given adequate consideration by developers. Manufacturers of connected devices are being encouraged to incorporate long-lasting security features to protect the user for as long as the product is in use. In return they will be able to display the ‘kite mark’ showing they meet this new standard.
Challenges and Opportunities
The IoT presents many opportunities for business owners, along with some pretty big challenges. Key amongst the latter is the issue of security and ensuring that all operations fall within legislation such as GDPR. In addition, data analysis and creating strategy are time-intensive activities. The sheer volume of information that it’s possible to obtain via IoT technology can be unmanageable for smaller organisations, where there simply aren’t the resources available.
On the other hand, businesses who do find a way to manage the data and use it effectively, will be able to maximise their potential. Business planning becomes much more strategic and the customer offer is better targeted. IoT tech can also help businesses of all sizes to make the most of their customer relationships with improved service and personalised offers. We all love it when a shopkeeper gives us a smile and says, “This just came in, I thought it was right up your street!” It makes the service feel more personal and the relationship more important. Data that can be exploited through the IoT makes these sorts of interactions possible with customers who you don’t encounter as regularly, but who are just as important to your business.
When considering the implications, opportunities and risk that comes with embracing the IoT, it may seem a bit daunting. But, by making sure you approach it with the right balance of caution and enthusiasm, you can make the most of everything it has to offer, with minimal risk to you and your customers. Here’s our checklist:
The first thing is to get the security right. Be aware of where your vulnerabilities lie and take measures to plug any gaps. Are your internal systems robust enough to prevent a cyber-attack? Are external gateways adequately protected? Importantly, make sure your customers and suppliers know how seriously you treat the security of their personal data.
When it comes to the hardware and software you invest in for IoT activities, choose wisely. Technology is constantly evolving; once you embrace it, you must keep up with any developments and significant changes. The IoT is no different. As a business, it’s vital to ensure your IoT technology and business systems are fit for purpose now and in the future. Choose an IoT platform that adequately supports what you want to do. You will need to consider data collation, data storage, data analysis and of course, the user experience.
Keep on the right side of the Information Commissioner, be compliant with data protection legislation. If you do business in the European Union area, remember that GDPR applies to anyone who holds or processes data of people living in the EU, no matter where in the world they are located.
Don’t overstretch your resources. Utilise them sensibly and only gather as much data as you can manage. There’s no point in having gigabytes of data that you have no capacity to analyse and use effectively.
Make sure you have a plan for how you will use the IoT to benefit your business. Design processes that demonstrate how you will gather, analyse and use data. Will you need an app for your business to make it easier for customers to do business with you? Can you integrate home or office technology into your business product or service offer to create an ongoing relationship? The possibilities are endless.