Internet of Things - start moving and stop panicking

We’ve officially kicked off our collaboration with Switchee - testing their smart thermostats in twenty of our customers homes.

The units, networked with door and motion sensors in the property, optimise the times heating is called for from the boiler - saving our customers money on their gas fuel bills. Furthermore the units deliver added value for landlords, providing us with data around heating usage, temperature and humidity information.

It’s going to be the first time we’ve had this level of information about our properties and the way our customers use them, but it’s been this level of information that has always carried the health warning.

The internet of things is just a government backed mind control scheme.

The internet of things is just a government backed mind control scheme.

Privacy. Is this level of information just TOo far?

From a customer standpoint at least, no.

The families and individuals involved in our first test were incredibly open and trusting about sharing this information. The willingness to share stemmed mostly from altruism - the desire to help identify those vulnerable people who might otherwise drop through the cracks. Furthermore, if the units do actually save our customers money on the gas bills (something that is already being reported in our post-install questionnaire), it's a win-win.

It is up to us (and Switchee) now to extrapolate the information that helps us reach this end goal and ensure the whole process is secure. Which brings us to our second health warning.


Have I just opened my boiler up for hacking?

In some IoT applications security has seemed alarmingly low down on the agenda. Cars with brakes and transmissions remotely disabled (ouch) to smart pacemakers killing their hosts (fortunately mannequins), hackers have not shied away from making examples of these high risk integrations.

We’re confident in Switchee’s encryption and data protection to secure the devices against unwarranted invasion - however, to quote the police liaison officer who was handling the paperwork on my stolen motorbike... "If they've seen it and they want it, they'll get it eventually"If this holds true for hacking a thermostat - be afraid, be very afraid.

Hackers disabled the brakes on this Jeep Cherokee and drove it into a ditch (accidentally, I think...)  Credit:  ANDY GREENBERG/WIRED

Hackers disabled the brakes on this Jeep Cherokee and drove it into a ditch (accidentally, I think...)  Credit: ANDY GREENBERG/WIRED

Or don't. Shrug the blind panic off and get on with thinking about it rationally. 

The consequences of a mass hack aren’t realistically going to be as life or death as the aforementioned examples - more likely mirroring a boiler breakdown. Albeit the risk increases with scale - i.e. we’ve never had to service 28’000 boilers all at once before… Still, we need less anxiety and more diligence if we’re going to test the concept thoroughly.


Haven’t we just created another system to manage?

Now we’re getting warmer.

The first two ‘sticking points’ lazily target IoT devices, sure, but it’s actually been more interesting to observe Bromford’s properties and processes throughout our install phase rather than gaze unblinkingly at the shortfalls of connected devices.

Firstly, the fact that Switchee doesn’t natively speak to our core systems rattled some cages. Understandably interoperability is a bit of a unicorn in the IoT world - no one wants to open their code to other developers and smear their intellectual property all over the shop. But in our case it simply feels unnecessary.  As long as data can be extracted along with a unique identifier, everything can be drawn together from a data model at a later date. We simply don’t need to obsess over connected systems when the process is so simple and heavily automated.

The second observation has been the existing wiring in our homes. Safe it is. The right colour wiring, routing, numbers of expected cables - not so much. In fact there seems to be many schools of electrical contractors out there -- to name just a couple...

  • School of the viper electricians run cables alongside existing ones, cable ties them together into thick conduits on undisclosed origin

  • School of the bear electricians maul their way through connector blocks, rerouting cables using whatever they’ve got stuck to their paws.

A couple of simple installations turned into more protracted affairs as we continuity tested our way through the house to find the right connections. We organised both an electrical and gas surveyor to attend our installs to minimise the time we invaded customer’s homes for.

Switchee have been fantastic supporters throughout this process, despite everything not going to plan (or more true, schematic) on a handful of occasions. This collaboration between organisation and tech provider to continually improve delivery is what will govern the adoption of IoT in larger businesses - what will disassemble the purported risks being flapped about in the mainstream media. If you can find a good partner who’s willing to develop and respond to your organisational challenges, the focus can remain much more on the value of the technology rather than any difficulties implementing it.