Product Management and the Internet of Things

BY JOCK BUSUTTIL ON MAY 2, 2014

April’s ProductTank London considered the question of how to manage devices in an increasingly interconnected world. Marc Abraham (@MAA1) brought us three great speakers to share their experience of the Internet of Things (IoT), product management and connected devices:

Smart People, Dumb Objects, Networked Environments

Usman HaqueFounding Partner at Umbrellium Usman Haque (@uah) took the stage first to respond to the common hype that the Internet of Things is only about sensors, big data and connected products. His question to us was what happens when you put people back in the centre of the data and the decision-making.

When we blindly trust big data we abdicate our responsibility for the decision, as if the quantity of data somehow trumps its quality. We become passive spectators, distracted by pretty visualisations from questioning what’s actually goes on behind the data – the “why”.

For example, a city generates a map of its air quality from a network of pollution sensors. The sensors are four or five metres from the ground but this method of measuring doesn’t reflect reality for people – we don’t walk around five metres in the air.

Usman wrapped up with a few examples to illustrate how his firm was trying to put people and context back into data gathering.

In Japan after the Fukushima incident, the Pachube community (now Xively) gathered and released data on radiation levels. Radiation experts complained that this generated “dirty” (uncalibrated) data, but once they realised that the community was simply trying to use the information to make decisions about their day-to-day lives, they began to engage in the discussion and provide tips on how the community could improve its data gathering.

Natural Fuse uses a network of devices connected to house plants to illustrate the  consequences of power consumption its relationship to carbon footprint; Addicted Toasters is a network of toasters that ship themselves to where they’re needed if their current owner doesn’t use them often enough, demonstrating how objects can regulate their own supply and demand in a resource-constrained system.

Parting Thoughts

  • The Internet of Things is about creating many-to-many connections, not just remote controls for single devices.
  • What we choose to measure can allow us to make sense of our environments and act upon them in a more meaningful way.
  • Rather than abdicating our decisions to big data, we should embrace greater accountability for the decisions we make and their outcomes.

Democratising the Internet of Things for Cities

Yodit StantonOur next speaker was Yodit Stanton (@yoditstanton), Founder of Atomic Data Labs and Opensensors.IO. Yodit is primarily interested in the sensor data being generated within smart cities by the IoT and the questions the data can raise.

In one study her firm collected data from twenty connected homes, monitoring everything from how often windows were opened through to sleep patterns. The data suggested a possible link between disturbances to occupants’ REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and their likelihood of suffering a minor accident a few days later.

Yodit imagined a scenario in which buildings could observe links between the age, level of physical activity and desired room temperature of individual occupants and begin to tailor environmental conditions accordingly.

She also observed that smartphones contain surprisingly sophisticated sensor arrays and these days can even measure magnetic fields and atmospheric pressure. Their ubiquity and relatively low cost make can make them a more appealing alternative to purpose-built sensors when conducting field surveys, such as determining where steps are at a railway station for wheelchair users.

“Standards are like toothbrushes; you know you need one but nobody wants to use somebody else’s.” – Yodit Stanton

The Internet of Things is the perfect storm of hardware, software and data and most people’s comfort zone is in one of those three areas. Part of the challenge presented by the IoT is the need for more open software and hardware to lower the barriers to entry.

Parting Thoughts

  • What can modern smartphones tell you about the owner’s environment?
  • Think about how you can make the sensor data you gather easier to exchange.
  • The Internet of Things is about the intersection of hardware, software and data – how do we make that more accessible?

Thingdom Come

Patrick BergelOur final speaker for the evening was Patrick Bergel (@goodmachine), Founder and CEO of Animal Systems, to muse on how the Internet of Things has developed so far and the direction it might be going.

Patrick told us about an experiment Professor Ingo Althöfer of Friedrich-Schiller University conducted in 2013. He emptied a bucket of Lego pieces into a washing machine to see what structures would emerge after a washing cycle. Somewhat to Patrick’s dismay a fairytale castle didn’t emerge.  Instead the majority of combinations only involved a couple of bricks.

In much the same way, the Internet of Things has entered the Lego Age in which cheap, commodity sensors are readily available, data is easy to gather, analyse and visualise, there are people and companies interested (possibly from fear of missing out), and cash available for experimentation. Like the Lego bricks in the washing machine however, the combinations of sensors, hardware, software and data being created are still relatively simplistic.

This is because the devices being built at the moment are superfluous and fail to address sufficiently pressing human needs. Instead they micromanage people’s lives (think calorie counters and exercise monitors), or are pointless – see HapiFork (an accelerometry-enabled fork to help control your weight) or Sony’s patent for a smart wig for reference.

“Kickstarter is the rectal thermometer for hipster desire – it tells people what they think they want” – Patrick Bergel

Skewed Attention

The Internet of Things could instead focus on solving more important problems such as the so-called demographic timebomb. A quarter of the UK population will be over the age of 65 by 2032, and significant rises are predicted in the number of people suffering from isolation, dementia and blindness by 2021. Only the very young and the elderly have any real need for data on their health. Too many Internet of Things products are for happy, healthy, wealthy people to collect and share pointless data with other happy, healthy people – the quantified self is currently not for people who actually need it.

The Internet of Things could enable the creation of cognitive aids for people with disorders that affect memory, and somatic aids that monitor the state, health and position of people in assisted care share that information with, or alert, carers.

Parting Thoughts

  • The devices we create must be charming – people must enjoy the interactions they have with the object.
  • True technology should aspire to the simplicity and utility of cutlery.
  • It’s okay for us to combine sensors, data, hardware, software like Lego as long as it eventually leads us to solve more pressing and meaningful human problems.

If you’re interested in more about the Internet of Things, you may wish to take a look at the write-up and video from November’s ProductTank, which also looked at the topic. Knowit kindly sponsored the drinks this month. The videos for the talks will be available on the blog soon.

Do join us for our next ProductTank London at 6.30pm on Wednesday 21st May (third Wednesday of each month as usual) on product management in B2B (business-to-business) companies. Tickets will be made available soon.

Don’t forget to save the date for 2014’s Mind The Product Conference on Friday 12th September.

You can also get in touch with us if you’re interested in speaking at or curating a ProductTank, writing for our blog on Mind The Product, or sponsoring our events. Until next time!

Jock Busuttil

About JOCK BUSUTTIL

Jock is a freelance head of product, author and startup mentor with over seventeen years' experience working in technology. He helps startups and larger organisations with digital transformation and to improve their product management practices, including Experian, BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). He is the founder of Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy and training. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.

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