Every time we connect to other people via email, social media platforms and other inter-personal digital networks enabled by the world wide web, we become part of an Internet of Persons – a network of people, sharing information and data across platforms. In the same way that humans are able to engage in networks enabled by computing devices and the web, it is also possible to allow machines, sensors and other mechanical and digital devices to communicate with each other directly through the power of technology.
It is this network of machines and digital devices, communicating with one another without requiring human to human or human to computer interactions mediating the process that is called the Internet of Things, or IoT.
From smart phones to smart meters, smart watches, and sensors that can monitor rainfall, temperature, traffic flows, power usage and water consumption, we are creating machines and devices that ease our daily moments and experiences. The next step is to leverage these devices to enhance our daily lives and business operations.
For instance, IoT can be leveraged in agriculture to enhance irrigation efficiency. Sensors that track data in the spoil and atmosphere, like moisture, temperature and humidity can be used to turn on irrigation systems remotely and deliver the exact quantities of water required, reducing water losses, saving energy and costs. Fuel pipelines can be fitted with sensors to monitor for leaks, while motion sensor cameras on remote assets can be used to alert responders to potential security breaches. In a city like Lagos which is faced with significant traffic challenges, smart sensors can be used to collate traffic flows and make traffic routing decisions based on real time data. Companies in the logistics and transportation business can use embedded devices to track the location of their vehicles and optimise route allocation.
On the home front, smart, interconnected devices used to home can help its occupants improve energy efficiency by turning air conditioning systems and lights on or off, based on the tracking of variables like light intensity, motion sensing, and temperature. The list of possibilities is massive, and IoT technologies have the potential to provide opportunities for growth in sectors as diverse as payment systems, insurance, education & training and manufacturing. While Africa might not be at the forefront of this new development yet, trends show a year on year growth in online adoption.
The retail sector is not left out either. RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) tags – tags that use intelligent barcodes to track items in a retail environment – makes stock keeping and monitoring a much easier task for the retailer. Already, Rwanda is matching SIM cards to bank accounts, offering retailers the ability to take payment from customers in remote areas.
The growth in connectivity is astounding. About fifty percent of the world’s population now has an internet connection. There are more than 700 million monthly users sending over ten billion messages per day on WhatsApp. One billion monthly active users on Facebook, four billion YouTube video views per day, 500 million daily tweets globally, and over 100 billion searches per day on Google. These numbers are nothing short of astonishing considering the comparative lifespan of the internet.
The adoption and growing use of smart devices, computing hardware and the software that can facilitate connectivity between these devices is increasing significantly. It is projected that by 2020, we should have four billion connected people, over 25 billion embedded and intelligent systems, and more than twenty-five million apps. These devices are everywhere and include personal accessories, i.e., wearable gadgets like the FitBit.
While many have long feared that the Internet of Things might make humans redundant as machines gain more prominence, time has proven that the opposite has become the case, with more jobs being created as humans adapt to new purposes and find new aspirations.
Uber is a prime example of the use of IoT and its potential to transform traditional business models. Uber has leveraged GPS systems, connectivity of devices, geolocation and mobile technology to innovate around transport delivery. Not only has it created more jobs and income for the drivers on the service, but by disrupting the industry, all competing transport facilities are now looking at ways to incorporate digital technology in their offering.
As with all great leaps in advancement and opportunity, there is always a need for applying caution. With connectedness, infrastructure, skills, strategy and interoperability comes the need to take into consideration privacy, data ownership, safety and security, standards and regulation. Issues surrounding the collection of data must be viewed with integrity and caution. Questions such as who owns the collected data, what might they be used for, what are the regulations in place regarding the collation and use; and who has rights to the data and how it is kept safe, must be answered.
If these questions remain top of mind for Africa in particular, then there is a lot of benefit to be gained from the Internet of Things. When we look specifically at African challenges and requirements and create solutions for them, we can successfully shift from the linear to the exponential, creating innovation that affects us positively as a continent. We can harness its benefits – connectivity, efficiency, convenience, wellness, conservation and personalisation and customisation – to have lasting impact across the continent.