£5m technology initiative to establish data-sharing network

A new £5m initiative aims to explore how connecting everyday technologies such as cars and electricity meters to the internet could make them more useful.

The project, funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), will see more technologies sharing data in a network referred to as the ’internet of things’, which could help improve services in the public and private sectors.

The TSB plans to use workshops, feasibility studies and technology-demonstration competitions to encourage businesses from the energy, transport, building and health sectors to work together more effectively to develop this network.

‘For example, data from a smart electricity meter about what appliances are being switched on could also be used to deliver data on how old people are doing in their homes,’ the TSB’s lead digital technologist, Dr Maurizio Pilu, told The Engineer.

‘In another context, a car is full of microprocessors these days and the question is “what if the car becomes part of a city system where it knows where the car parks are and could automatically pay for them?”.’

This ’internet of things’ could include any domestic appliances fitted with a computer chip, or objects with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are increasingly used in payment cards and to track and catalogue goods and livestock.

The TSB believes that the growth of such a network will make services much more efficient and enthusiasm for the idea will encourage investment and create jobs in a supply chain of devices, systems engineering and software.

‘Kitting out a house for assisted living is estimated to cost £400,’ said Pilu. ‘Multiply that by 10 million old people, add services on top and the numbers pile up substantially.’

The global market for services powered by this kind of network could reach more than $300bn (£180bn) by 2013, according to Harbour Research, a consultancy specialising in the sector.

The problem is that different technologies made by different companies are often incompatible or don’t have standard communication protocols. Businesses can also be cautious about sharing information on their technology with software developers.

To address this, the TSB plans to set up a special-interest group as a way of getting different companies to talk to each other, followed by a demonstration project to create a pilot network of technologies to highlight business opportunities.

Pilu said that there was already an appetite among companies to carry out this work, but industry leadership was needed to kick start the project and encourage businesses to talk to each other about the possibilities and problems of opening up their data.

‘We need industry to start owning this problem and debating it. There are big issues related to convergence and openness; related to proving that this can be done in such a way that it is privacy, identity and ethically aware.’

Pilu added that the project had already received firm ministerial interest from the business department and that it fitted in with the government’s policy drive to do more for less at a time of budget cuts.

Chancellor George Osborne this week said he wanted the UK to be at the forefront of innovation in this area and announced a new research centre focusing on energy, transport and social data, run by Imperial College London and University College London.