Enter the Internet of Things: And we thought the news was disrupted before

Just when you thought you’d got your head around omnichannel publishing, audience engagement, VR and chatbots, along comes a concept so expansive you find yourself asking the question: What the hell is the Internet of Things and why should I care?

What happens when there’s a sensor in everything and the world’s flooded with data you don’t understand? What does it mean to newsrooms that are already struggling with demands to produce more for less, dozens of times a day across every imaginable channel? Stuart Waite, ex-News Corp. executive, board member of the Internet of Things Alliance Australia and CEO of consulting firm Timpani, is here to get us sorted. Smart grid illustration above from the E.U. via Giphy.

More than enough has been written about the decline of print and the battering traditional journalism is taking at the hands of digital disruption. So let’s spin this on its head and talk about the digital opportunity instead — never better realised than via this Internet of Things, or IoT.

The IoT is a term coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 while he was working at Procter and Gamble on an electronic tracking program to solve a particular supply chain issue. But it’s only recently that it’s entered the mainstream vernacular — especially in the tech community. The basic pieces have been around for decades. Terms such as machine-to-machine, embedded systems and building automation are now credited with establishing the foundations of the much cooler sounding the Internet of Things.

The best way to think of the IoT is as the natural evolution of the Internet we know today. But I don’t mean streaming 4K movies on your laptop while sitting by the pool. The IoT is about millions of low-powered sensors each sending tiny amounts of data to the cloud at frequent intervals. Basically, technologists are striving to connect everything they can see, hear and touch to the internet. However, as with every new acronym, you have to see through the hype to spot the real opportunities.

It’s an understatement to say the IoT is in its infancy. There’s more Silicon Valley hyperbole right now than any real evidence yet of a return on investment. And there are just so many potential uses that it can be hard for a journalist new to this world to get a handle on it.

Predominantly the industry refers to two types of IoT: consumer and industrial. The distinction is important both in the maturity of each market and in the value of the data it generates.

Consumer IoT has been made famous by Fitbit, the Apple Watch and the Nest thermostat.

Most people are unaware of the Industrial IoT — which is by far the most mature and successful market. Industrial IoT is estimated to become a $116 billion market in Australia alone by 2025. Many refer to this as Industrial 4.0 — the next industrial revolution. Whichever way you describe it, we’re entering a world where cheaper and smaller sensors are capturing and sending more and more data directly to the cloud where increasingly automated AI-powered software platforms are making real-time decisions that directly affect you right now. And you think we have a privacy and data security problem today?

For journalists, the IoT offers an enormous opportunity, both in newsgathering and in the final distribution of content to the consumer.

But just as with the early days of the web, it’s not yet not clear where your efforts should be focused.

Source: oystermag.com via Giphy.

Source: oystermag.com via Giphy.

There was little indication in the late 1990s that the web would completely transform media in less than a decade. And so it is with the IoT. We’re at that equivalent stage now. Most of us believe the IoT is going to transform entire industries; we’re just not sure when and how much. What the internet has done to date is to completely change the way information is gathered and disseminated. The IoT is going to take that to a whole other level.

So let’s start with the IoT ecosystem.

Get to know the landscape

IoT encompasses all the core components of the internet and adds hardware capabilities, cloud infrastructure, security and privacy concerns and data aggregation at an unprecedented scale.

As a journalist, it’ll be important to understand who are the real players in this space and what their agenda is for gaining market traction and extracting significant value over time. Understand the value chain, understand the data and you’ll have access to more story opportunities than ever before.

Every conversation about the IoT starts with the telecoms industry, specifically telcos and their vendors. They have been the major proponents of this latest evolution in connected technology. Their evangelism is partly powered by the necessity to deploy new network capability. For a country that can’t even get its basic broadband network rolled out, the need for an additional IoT communications network seems distracting at best. But IoT deployments need low cost, low bandwidth and low-power consumption to scale — and today’s existing 4G networks are not designed for that.

Beef up your data skills — now

For the media, this is not about continuing to bash the flawed nbn, but an opportunity to embrace a world where gathering information at scale has never been easier or cheaper.

Journalists reporting in the connected age will need forensic-level analysis skills to see through the fog and get to the core of what the data is actually saying.

The challenge will be in how to best apply journalistic curiosity and rigour when interpreting that data, instead of just accepting it when presented by technically savvy businesses in an intimidating soup of new terms. Data will be sliced and diced in whatever way necessary to support a preferred outcome. Journalists reporting in the connected age will need forensic-level analysis skills to see through the fog and get to the core of what the data is actually saying.

IoT businesses are being started at an incredible rate, in Australia as well as the usual hangouts of the U.S. and China. This is a great thing, and should be encouraged.

There’s a saying in the IoT startup world that “hardware is hard.” But it’s never been easier to develop a hardware device and get it to a global market. And hardware, especially sensor technology, is seen as the true catalyst for driving the IoT to where it is today.

It’s all around us. From traffic cameras and parking sensors, to street lighting and bus telemetry; from smart water meters to connected thermostats and fitness wearables. Many of these connected devices contain multiple sensors — and within every sensor there’s a story to be told.

The key for journalists is being technically aware enough to unlock that opportunity.
In a recent trip to the U.S., I saw a live demo of people who had injected sensors under their skin to detect blood flow across their muscles. A live dashboard showed the entire audience how certain types of exercises changed the way muscles contracted and recovered.

You can start to see the lengths companies will go to use sensor technology to collect data in order to provision a service — and despite not being approved by the FDA yet, there’s no shortage of willing participants.

Consider the security implications

These types of uses send alarm bells ringing in security and privacy circles. And so they should. As comedian James Veitch recently said in a TED talk, “The internet gave us access to everything — but it also gave access for everything to us.”

There have already been numerous cases of flawed, ineffectual or plainly nonexistent security in IoT devices. We’ve seen everything from hacked baby cams to the recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that used tens of thousands of IoT devices to take down journalist Brian Krebs’ security blog and a number of prominent internet sites including Twitter, the Guardian, Netflix, Reddit and CNN. In the past month alone we’ve had two of the largest DDoS attacks ever recorded — and all because of lack of focus on security and the stupidity of a number of IoT device manufacturers.

Hackers have even been able to take control of connected thermostats, potentially holding entire families hostage by turning their home into a permanent sauna. There’s also the now infamous case of a hacker team taking remote control of a 2014 Jeep SUV and forcing it off the road at low speeds. Cyberterrorists are already targeting IoT as the next billion-dollar industry, with each new IoT device connected to the internet being a new entry point for hackers.

Current IoT security vulnerabilities are comparable to the early days of the web. Eventually businesses invested appropriately to secure their data and infrastructure. Everyone is hoping IoT follows a similar path where security becomes priority one instead of an afterthought.

But right now, that’s not happening. As the IoT is a complicated and emerging ecosystem, many new entrants determine security as someone else’s problem, relying on larger existing cloud or hardware providers to protect consumers’ data. But there have been enough large enterprise cloud breaches of late to cast doubt on the efficacy of that approach.

The opportunity for journalists to gather their own information via the IoT is significant but incredibly complicated.

Public and private IoT deployments are being rolled out every week. Entire cities are being connected from water and electricity provision to transport, street lights, schools, business offices and shopping centres.

There’s no apparent limit to what can be connected, though there’s a clearly a limit to what should be connected.

Get in there and try it (responsibly)

Some journalists are already taking advantage of this new low-cost sensor-based journalism to collect their own primary data.

“Data can be wrong, misleading, harmful, embarrassing or invasive. Presenting data as a form of journalism requires that we subject the data to a journalistic process.”

—Jeff Sonderman

From tracking the frequency and location of gunshots in a city, to measuring air and water quality, or using camera-equipped drones to record events remotely, journalists are equipping themselves with the first generation of IoT devices to gather data never before seen.

Initiatives like Open Sensors, Thingful and The Things Network are just some of the tools journalists will use in the future to gather and analyse publically accessible data.

So here’s the primary challenge for journalists. If everything’s connected and constantly sending data to the cloud, how do I get access to it, and what do I do with it?

Much has been written about data journalism, with many now suggesting a basic skill for today’s journalists is the ability to access data sets via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

With the IoT, the most successful journalists will develop their own APIs, employing them like the shoe leather of a bygone era. But they’ll need to be careful. As Jeff Sonderman from The Poynter Institute summarises, “Data can be wrong, misleading, harmful, embarrassing or invasive. Presenting data as a form of journalism requires that we subject the data to a journalistic process.”

Tour de France races ahead on IoT coverage

One of the best examples of how the IoT is changing the way information is distributed and consumed was the recent Tour de France. With sensors mounted on the bikes and riders themselves, cycling fans were treated to live data analytics measuring not only the performance of the rider, but his GPS position relative to his team and peloton and the impact weather and stage conditions would have as the race continued.

Formula 1 technology had come to the Tour. This was a new method of storytelling, and the fans loved it.

This data revolution directly impacted how the teams themselves planned their race strategies, quickly using the information to direct their teams minute by minute — all of which was meticulously visualised on TV and the web. The company behind this technology even provided expert data journalists to help others covering the race to understand it all.

The recent Rio Olympics was awash with athletes and staff utilising wearable technology to capture every aspect of their performance. But journalists largely missed the opportunity: Broadcasters focused on their traditional linear video delivery models instead of creating new forms of storytelling with the newly available data. That showed just how far ahead Formula 1, MotoGP and the Tour are when it comes to using sensors to enhance storytelling.

Echo, the newest news disruptor

The leading consumer IoT device right now is not the Apple Watch or latest Fitbit. It’s the Amazon Echo. Voice has become the main way for consumers to access AI-powered systems. Amazon has established an early lead. Apple and Google are now playing catch-up.

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Amazon has sold millions of Echos, some at the behest of journalist Kara Swisher who at Inspirefest 2016 said, “Get the Echo. You need to understand where content requests are coming from by using it.”

What she’s referring to is how interacting with Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, is such a natural experience that users, including myself, now consume their news via its voice interface.

It’s an arms race, and the prize is the billions in profit generated by locking consumers into a company’s ecosystem. Google wants you to use their hardware and software from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. If you want to know anything, you’ll simply ask Google’s Assistant to tell you. Apple wants Siri to be just as pervasive. Whether you’re at home, in the car, on the bus or at the office, they will be at your beck and call.

And major publishers are rushing in to take advantage of these new capabilities. The BBC, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post all have editions available via Alexa’s Flash Briefing service. And dozens of other audio briefings covering technology, sport, weather and business are also available.

Google’s recently announced Home product plans to take Alexa’s smarts to a whole new level. Want to know what’s happening in the world? Simply ask Google’s Assistant. It will search for an article and read it back to you.

While Amazon is leading the way in consumer IoT, other startups are disrupting more traditional business models. Ring.com sells connected video door bells. Their ultimate mission, though, is to reduce neighbourhood crime by connecting everyone’s video doorbell to a “ring” of defence. It’s CCTV at a scale never before seen, and with the complete buy-in of the community. People are already seeing dramatic reductions in crime where these doorbells are installed. The amount of data being collected every day by these seemingly innocuous devices is astounding.

This is just the beginning in the mass adoption of consumer IoT. It’s still climbing the Hype Cycle and will go through a period of frustrated decline before re-emerging in a more robust, accessible and secure form over the next few years.

The advent of the smartphone transformed journalism — journalists now tell stories to an always-on consumer. Traditional methods of distribution and consumption have been irrevocably disrupted, and the IoT will only disrupt the media further. The IoT adds a new dimension to the complexity of storytelling in this connected age. How will journalists tell stories via watches, Amazon Echos, doorbells, connected cars and smart ovens — or will they even try?

Herein lies the challenge faced by today’s journalists. Those that truly believe in the craft, and in the value journalism brings to society, will identify and embrace this opportunity creating new ways to surprise and delight their audiences. I’m looking forward to reading, hearing, seeing, touching and sensing the news — whenever and wherever I want.

Stuart Waite (@stuartwaite) is a startup investor and consultant, and a board member of the Internet of Things Alliance Australia. If you’re in Sydney, come hear him talk all things IoT-and-news on Nov. 4 at our Future Friday: How the Internet of Things will change the news business.