The era of “ambient intelligence” for cities

15 July 2014 | Charles Jennings, CEO, Swan Island Networks

In a recent blog post, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote about a new generation of connected devices with “the capacity to listen to us, respond to us, understand us and act on our behalf.” These devices, connected in a “mobile-first, cloud-first world,” are creating a massive new data infrastructure, commonly known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The core challenge of the IoT, Nadella writes, “is to find a way of exhaust from ubiquitous computing and converting it into fuel for ambient intelligence.”

Nadella says we are entering a new era in which data from every cubbyhole of daily life will be pulsing our way, helping us all make smarter, faster decisions—decisions about everything from energy consumption in smart buildings to medication levels in our own bodies. It’s a big vision, one Nadella shares with other IT visionaries who see some version of the IoT as the “Next Big Thing” in computing.

For cities and other state/local government jurisdictions, the rise of the IoT should be very good news. New network-enabled devices—from door locks to water sensors to traffic-flow monitors—will soon be joining the great global computing grid. They will make operational transparency and centralized systems easier to control and more efficient than ever.

But IoT devices will bring new risks as well. For example, not long ago, an IoT-networked refrigerator was found to be a key malware server in a major cyber attack. This attack was particularly ironic since one of the most familiar IoT use cases over the past few years has been the refrigerator that automatically orders milk when you are running low.

Fact is, most new IoT endpoints will be a two-sided coin: they will offer compelling new benefits but also have fewer security controls than computers or even cell phones. They will create tempting new opportunities—and tempting new attack surfaces that can be exploited in a variety of ways.
Still, the upside for cities is compelling. One of the biggest benefits will be increased agility: the ability to get local information quickly and easily, out of the cloud, without having to engage in large, risky and often quickly obsolete software development projects. Another benefit of IoT: cities will have more opportunities to provide new, low-cost data services to their constituents.

But the deeper benefit, as Nadella suggests, is increased ambient intelligence: greater real-time understanding about what is happening around you.

Recall the Georgia ice storm last February? Local officials went to bed with a forecast of rain and woke up to a major ice storm. Without adequate public warning, the morning commute in Georgia that started as normal was turned into gridlock on main thoroughfares for most of the day.

Ambient intelligence systems would have automatically phoned the Governor of Georgia and other key government officials in the state at 3 a.m. when the National Weather Service changed its forecast from winter rain to a severe ice storm. Public announcements could have been all over the media before the morning commute started—and a great deal of citizen frustration, and government embarrassment, could have been prevented.

Ambient intelligence systems can tell city officials where school buses are in an emergency; warn about potential structural problems with roads and bridges; make cities safer while also saving energy with dynamic street lighting programs; provide minute-to-minute “trust scores” of all city IT systems; and more.

In fact, IoT-based, ambient intelligence services can provide city leaders and operators with an entirely new picture of their city: a kind of digital mirror image of their jurisdiction, constructed with real-time data from many, many sources. This “mirror city” can provide ambient intelligence about ever changing conditions, and help officials quickly and efficiently address new threats and challenges.

By supporting IoT systems today, cities can gain competitive advantages for economic development; save energy, and reduce hydrocarbon emissions; have safer streets and schools; and better respond to emergencies of all kinds. But entry into the IoT era should be made carefully, with security and operational resilience being primary concerns. Choosing vendors carefully, with an eye toward their in-house expertise and investments in system security, will be critical.

In his blog post, Nadella announced “Azure Intelligent Systems Service, a cloud-based service to connect, manage, capture, and transform machine-generated data regardless of the operating system or platform. This is our Internet of Things cloud service that goes into limited beta today.” The TIES for Microsoft CityNext Service, also hosted in Microsoft Azure and unveiled today at the Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington, D.C., is another human-level ambient intelligence service designed specifically for cities.

Both of these new offerings can help cities start experimenting with ambient intelligence services—with a high level of trust and confidence. Both can bring new insights to bear in the operation of everyday systems, and help keep key decision-makers more informed about breaking events. They can help cities share intelligence, in trusted ways, with their key partners, with little expense or risk. They can enable cities to do more with less, and also become lean-forward technology leaders.

Services from other vendors can also be plugged in to Microsoft-based IoT systems to create whole new integrated data ecosystems. New services from Microsoft can provide an important foundation for new IoT initiatives, but the most important things for cities to recognize are that the era of IoT services is Every major IT vendor that a city relies on today has IoT solutions. Demand for new data services from citizens is rising. New opportunities, and new risks, will abound.

The best strategy for cities today is to begin to explore and experiment with the IoT—using vendors that you know and trust. Think big, but proceed carefully. An IT tsunami likely to be even bigger than the social media wave is coming, and the sooner you have trustworthy IT partners to help you deal with both the opportunities and threats of this next new wave, the safer, more efficient, and more prosperous your city will be.

Charles Jennings
CEO, Swan Island Networks

About the Author

Charles Jennings | CEO, Swan Island Networks

Charles Jennings is a co-founder of TRUSTe, the Internet’s leading privacy assurance service, and is currently CEO of Swan Island Networks, which provides its TIES® security intelligence service to over 200 large enterprises. Read more