Smart Energy and the Internet of Things

It’s been a while since I last posted so have likely gone overboard with content, but here goes anyway! I recently attended the ‘Smart Energy: generation, supply and consumption’ workshop held by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) which was focused on the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) and what the implications and possibilities are for the energy sector. The workshop was well attended with almost 70 delegates split roughly 50/50 between people from industry and academia. For LiSC this was a great opportunity to see how both sides are collaborating towards innovating and commercialising in the domain of the IoT and energy. For connected devices such as smart meters it brings new experiences for consumers in how they can better understand and act on their energy consumption across a range of devices; from washing machines to mobile phones to vehicles. So first of all, what is this IoT all about?

The IoT is the idea of practically any object, including people, sharing information (via networked sensors) about their current state; for example location, energy usage or activity data sent to the cloud that can enhance our physical and digital experiences. It could be argued that the IoT is the latest evolution of ubiquitous/pervasive computing now being realised by inexpensive sensors and technology platforms that weren’t available as little as a few years ago. Adam Greenfield’s insightful book  ‘Everyware’ published back in 2005 is a good read, albeit rather verbose, on the concept of IoT and the interaction of citizens with omnipresent networked devices. In a recent interview he admits the book didn’t see the iPhone coming and the rapid game-changing experience that came with it, but really, who could have foreseen that in its entirety? Last year I was lucky enough to participate in a ‘Walkshop’ (a quirky spin on the workshop) by Adam in the city of Oulu, Finland whilst attending the UBI Summer School. Each Walkshop involves a tour of a city with a view to finding the various networked devices in the city urbanscape and attempt to decipher (as a group) their purpose and impact on citizens. In Oulu we found wind powered storm covers, obscured cameras, large interactive situated displays, pedestrian crossing sensors embedded in pavements and the usual plethora of CCTV cameras. Interestingly, when we turned our own sensors (cameras) on a street facing CCTV camera we invited the attentions of an irate security guard intent on being aggressive towards our ‘sousvelliance’….



Ed Borden from Pachube recently posted a succinct overview of the IoT over on the Pachube blog titled ‘The Open Data Steamroller’ and includes the nice  illustration below of what the IoT is by moving away from ‘closed’ machine to machine data silos over to open data for consumption. LiSC’s Electro-Magnates project utilises the Pachube platform to store near-real time energy data from the University of Lincoln, effectively opening up the data for public consumption using open standards. We hope to have a few more universities on board with us shortly to push their energy data to Pachube and are in talks with Lincolnshire County Council as they will have nearly 1000 smart meters coming online over the summer from the county’s schools. In addition to our own open data efforts at LiSC, Joss Winn, also from Lincoln University is co-ordinating a team working towards making various components of university-generated data open and ready for consuming via API’s.

The TSB Smart Energy workshop was worth attending and generated some useful data for our Electro-Magnates project. With the workshop having a strong industry presence there was discussion based around the potential creation of new business models that can benefit consumers more to optimise their energy usage. For example a smart meter connected to the IoT could allow a consumer to regularly change their tariff simply by selecting a new deal online and downloading the tariff to the smart meter instantly. Fine grain control of appliances by smart meters could be enabled to control/recommend which times energy-intensive devices can be used to limit peak demand and cost. Another task at the workshop was to envisage the types of objects we would like to see connected by the IoT. Aside from the obvious choices such as fridges, washing machines and heating there was some outside the box thinking with the top three non-energy object choices being people, animals and vehicles, something we at LiSC are actively aware of and will discuss a little shortly! Perhaps the most hotly debated topic at the workshop were the privacy and security issues surrounding energy data from smart meters, do the utilities own the data or the householder? More importantly, does the householder have complete access and control over their energy data? These are important questions for the consumers and will no doubt be parleyed with for some time.

At LiSC we are no strangers to the IoT revolution and have ran several studies that incorporate it with the inclusion of open datasets. Maurizio Pilu, a lead technologist at the TSB, said in his keynote at the workshop that when you mix the IoT with open datasets then “magic will happen”. We couldn’t agree more as this is exactly what lots of our own research does! Our domestic energy research has used various IoT devices such as the Wattson energy monitor and the Current Cost Bridge then mashed the energy data from these devices with datasets from social media networks and music services to enhance the end-users digital and lifestyle experiences. We also demonstrated the use of an embodied IoT agent (Nabaztag) providing aversive feedback on energy consumption. Other recent IoT innovations from our group include the Fearsquare and the forthcoming Tweeting Cats projects. Fearsquare mashes UK crime data with location data from mobile devices, thereby creating a unique experience and an opportunity to investigate citizens’ perceptions of crime in their daily localities. Through our links with animal behaviour experts we are looking at ways to enhance human-animal interaction through RFID tags worn by cats which expose eating/toileting behaviours and also through social media to increase connectedness between humans and companion animals.

Around the world the power of the IoT is helping empower citizens, in New York for example public sensors are being used to inform residents when the sewage system is close to overflow and to make an informed decision on their water usage. In Japan citizens are empowered by aggregating crowd-sourced radiation sensor data and calling for more evacuations in some areas. Plants are even benefiting from the IoT by giving them the right amount of water and light. These examples just highlight the diversity and huge untapped potential in creating unique user experiences by mixing IoT sensor data with open datasets.

I don’t think any blog post of mine would be complete without a mention of beer! After the workshop I made an obligatory visit to the Euston Tap and sampled the Meantime IPA on tap, a great beer. They also had the friendly face of Brewdog on display with their Ripetide and Hardcore IPA, both excellent beers!




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