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The Internet of Things: Keeping it Human

The easy part of building the Internet of Things (IoT) is connecting the infrastructure. Sensors and wireless technology expedite the flow of data from “things” to us and become the source of new products, market opportunities and cost savings. Yet as these connections multiply and generate massive amounts of data, the hard part is remaining mindful of the human motivations that are the foundation of the IoT. As designers helping to shape this new world, we should continually raise questions about the impact of our rapidly evolving connectedness on the individual, the community and on how we live.

We are connecting and networking everything, as it was in the Age of Electrification. In this new paradigm, however, the connected things enabled by the IoT are only the tangible points we see: the no-touch payment systems built into credit cards and bracelets; airplane engines streaming real-time data to analysts on the ground; a smartphone-enabled toothbrush. The physical and digital interface between these connected things becomes a conduit to the person on the other side. On a deeper level, the powerful engine of change in the IoT ecosystem is the quantitative data derived from those connections, allowing us to predict, analyze and extrapolate intelligence to support, or alter our behavior, and influence qualitative decisions people make.

Consider the value chain generated by E-ZPass, the wireless identification system that connects the car to the roadway infrastructure and payment system. An immediate value of E-ZPass is to ensure a smooth ride through tolls without slowing down or stopping. The aggregate value is ascertained through the accumulated data to improve the accuracy of traffic monitoring. Finally, a latent value can be determined by processing long-term data: women living in close proximity to a toll plaza delivered over 10 percent fewer premature and low-birth weigh babies, according to a study by Janet Currie and W. Reed Walker analyzing the impact of E-ZPass on newborns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

As our capability (and impulse) to connect everything increases, we need designers and design methodologies to provide a human lens to better understand, interpret and pinpoint value from the data we are reaping. Connecting more end points and sensors to gather data for data’s sake produces simply more data - not more value. Data attains value when it creates insights into unforeseen opportunities or improves the lives of end users.

At frog, we apply that human lens to the IoT and related Industrial Internet, a more focused definition of connected industrial assets and infrastructure. For a large industrial client who supports the power-generation sector, we designed power outage and distribution-management software to provide engineers with real-time information coming from massive electrical grids. From this data the engineers know exactly what’s happening with the physical infrastructure, helping them make decisions about what actions to take in the event of storms or unplanned outages. Using design methodologies - such as contextual observation and participatory design - ensured that the human voice was always heard in the design process and was present in the end product. In this case, for a product that restores power to customers faster and provides better safety for ground crews.

Looking ahead to our connected future, I’d like to suggest some ground rules. First, not everything should be connected. Sensors and connectivity don’t always result in a better experience, increased sales or usable information. Secondly, we need to think clearly about how data will impact people in a significant way in the immediate, aggregate and latent value framework. Equally important, let’s not be afraid to make something new, because we can’t rely on the notion that old things will be inherently better once they are connected. Some things will need to be connected and others won’t, and many things will need to be made new from the ground up.

Connecting more and more “things” with embedded sensors that relay information is only the beginning of this journey. Along the way we must always understand the human values at the center of the equation to ensure that the new connectedness of the IoT retains its human core.