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Getting IoTA off the Ground

By: Anab Jain
On: 20th August 2014
Organisation name: IoTA by Superflux and Forum for the Future

Getting started

After reading and experimenting with the potential of the Internet of Things but more than often within the rhetorical language of "smart cities", we wanted to build a site that would inspire in people to not just make, but also reflect on how using devices and sensors to make things could help shape the world around them. We wanted to show that the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) is about people and the change they can create.

IoTA 1

Image: Screengrab from the IoTA website which is currently under development

So we set out to build the Internet of Things Academy (IoTA) last year, and were very fortunate to receive early funding from Nominet Trust to begin to prototype our ideas. We applied for the funding with the goal to take our ideas through from early experiments to design and prototyping. 

When we applied for this funding we described IoTA as:  

“The Internet of Things Academy is an open, collaborative web platform that aims to empower a new generation to tackle complex global challenges by providing access to open data, tools, expertise, inspiring projects and the power of 50 billion connected devices. It will cater for projects of all levels and complexities and provide everything you need to start a project from access to open data and hardware tools to inspiration and a thriving community. The site will provide links to simple kits, instructions on a virtual breadboard and suggestions for increasing the complexity of the project.”

IoTA 2

Image: Sketch of the initial IoTA website showing how the virtual breadboard might work

Prototyping and testing

As we began the prototyping phase, two things became clear:

1.    Building a virtual breadboard is complex. From our research, we also discovered that learning to build hardware online is not easy or preferred. (Small issue)

2. There are lots of new platforms cropping up, each encouraging more and more people to become “makers”. We realised that whilst technological literacy was a component of our project, it was not the key idea. We wanted to encourage people to ask why they were making, and what they wanted to do, and change, with their creations. (Big issue)

As our world becomes increasingly proliferated with sensors and “big data”, it is essential that people who, so far, have been passive end users, become actively aware of what sensors measure, and what data actually means. IoTA has a clear social mission about exploring if, and how IoT can empower people, and we wanted to focus on that. We wanted to create a new vocabulary around IoT, one that does not stem from the top down, financial dreams of several governments and corporations, but evolves from a common public language based on intent and use: A vocabulary that encourages people to create projects that show how data is made, how it is collected, how it can be read, where it lives, and most importantly, what it can do collectively.

As IoTA grew, we realised that the most important thing our platform could offer was a way to help people make a difference within their communities by creating data on the things that matter to them. IoTA's new mission became to show people how their data can become evidence, an enabler and a catalyst for change. As our theory of change goes, we believe that in the longer term, this evidence (little data) can influence, shape and change policy, encourage a culture of civic innovation and change corporate practices.

Changing direction

Our new proposition is:

"The Internet of Things Academy (IoTA) is an open platform which puts people at the centre of the Internet of Things (IoT).  IoTA invites communities to learn how to create and use data to educate themselves and inform long term behavioural and legislative change. It gives people a space to learn and ask the questions they never thought they’d have the answers to: How much pollution does my baby inhale on our daily walks? How much do flight paths impact on my sleep? By participating in projects people can create the data needed to provide evidence to tackle the challenge, whether that’s walking a different route or campaigning against flight paths.  

IoTA spreads the message that IoT shouldn’t be limited to big data, smart cities and a select few having access to enormous piles incomprehensible datasets. Our platform helps people to stop being a data spectator: measuring or being measured with no insight into where the data goes or what it means."

This significant shift in our proposition meant a big change in our implementation. We moved away from online learning, to become more of an advocacy space, making a rapidly ubiquitous technology visible and useful to those who so far have been passive, coerced observers. Our core challenges are therefore to highlight the potential of the IoT to a wide range of stakeholders, inspire them to act and provide a platform to host their projects and learn.  We started to build the platform to explore how people might use it and how its experience might be created, starting with one of the key aspects - the “create project" function.

IoTA 3

Image: Sketch of the “create project” form, which prompts people to create a hypothesis of what they want to change. Our intention is to try and move towards an easy, simple form, but with the level of complexity that encourages thought before creating a project. Such a form would encourage people to think of other options too, and maybe if there are other analogue solutions, then IoTA would encourage them to try them.

IoTA 4

Image: A small glimpse of the first round of testing the “create project” form.

Following this process of testing it became apparent that we needed to build demonstrator projects where we could test our assumptions. So we set about to create a small scale experiment around aircraft noise pollution, which I will share in the next blog post.