Humans and the Internet of Things: How to work together

The following is a contributed article by Abbas Haider Ali, CTO at xMatters, a company that allows two-way communications between people and machines


What do Kanye West and the Internet of Things (IoT) have in common?  Both tend to be filter-less blabbermouths. Kanye’s antics have gained him international attention as a controversial entertainer. But the IoT and the mind-boggling amount of data it generates could create a not-so-entertaining TMI (too much information) problem for the emerging enterprise IoT.

You see, a funny thing has happened to the Internet of Things on its way to becoming The Next Big Thing: turns out it’s actually an Internet of People too. That’s because, at the end of the sensor data + analytics pipeline sit human beings who receive information and are required to take action.

Know how annoying and overwhelming it can feel when your smartphone bombards you with seemingly random notifications and messages from apps? Now imagine what it will be like to be a doctor or nurse in a post-IoT hospital where sensors track all kinds of information about patients, equipment and various support operations. How do you bring all this data down to human scale and make it consumable?

It’s easy to forget that while computers will analyse fast-moving IoT data at unprecedented scale and deliver insights at previously unimagined depth and speed, those insights have little value if people can’t grasp them and take action.

Excitement over the technological possibilities of the IoT shouldn’t blur the fact that the healthcare industry, retailers, manufacturers and others must take human factors into account as they build out their IoT capabilities.

Ubiquitous and meshed connectivity promises to transform how people work and are engaged, but a new breed of IT expert will need to emerge with the right skill set for capitalizing on the promise of a user-friendly IoT in the enterprise. 

While the enterprise IoT is still in its infancy, there are many signs that the space, for lack of a better word, is starting to take off.

A recent IDC report found that increasing numbers of organizations see the IoT as strategic to their business, with IoT awareness gaining particular traction in the healthcare, retail, manufacturing and transportation industries. Gartner forecasts that 4.9 billion connected things will be in use in 2015 and will reach 25 billion by 2020, mostly in the manufacturing, utilities and transportation sectors.

Large tech players like Amazon, Cisco and Samsung are trying to make a splash in the enterprise IoT. IBM positioned its October 28 announcement that it’s buying the Weather Company’s B2B, mobile and cloud-based web properties as an extension of Big Blue’s enterprise IoT initiative. Enterprise IoT startup Helium Systems, whose investors include Shawn Fanning of Napster fame, has attracted a good deal of attention.

And real-world enterprise IoT use cases are on the rise.

For example, it’s been widely reported that supermarket chain Kroger has equipped refrigerated containers with sensors that check temperatures every half hour – rather than having clipboard-wielding employees manually check twice a day. In a great example of smartly making IoT data consumable for humans, the system alerts store managers and facilities engineers if temperatures hit unsafe levels.

Under a pilot project at a large hospital, embedded sensors in patients’ admissions bracelets that track their movements and interact with a variety of other systems, from bedside monitors to patient records, to give hospital staff more intelligent and proactive treatment choices.  The hospital was careful to build in a sensible strategy for communicating the most pertinent information to doctors and nurses from all this data, when and where it makes sense, rather than overwhelming them with alerts and messages.

Both of these examples illustrate the wisdom of avoiding a fire hose approach – taking all your IoT insights and blasting them willy nilly – and the importance of tailoring the right amount of the right information to the right people.

The Harvard Business Review recently reported on an interesting survey about human user patterns in the IoT. Though the study focused on consumer applications, the findings are true for the enterprise as well: People “value these technologies as ‘living services’ that anticipate their wants and act on them,” and don’t sap their attention.

In the enterprise IoT, many more employees will be susceptible to the “alert fatigue” that has plagued IT techs and engineers for years: Faced with a constant stream of notifications, where responding to each one is impossible, humans tend to start ignoring or filtering the messages. Organizations must take this into account as they design IoT systems.

We live in a wildly exciting time when sensors working in conjunction with specialized learning systems will ask questions of IoT data faster than we can think of them, much less answer them. Enterprises are in the early days of realizing the value it can extract from those insights.

But as with so many things in the world, process is where everything can break down. Organizations must consider all the aspects around the people engagement side of the IoT.  Failing to do so could lead to big problems crashing their IoT party.


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