The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

The Internet of Things is an emerging network where integrated sensors, communicating through the Internet, generate diverse, granular and real-time data. This technology could revolutionize the way that we monitor the economy and our environment, and respond to risks and challenges. What steps do we need to take so that the Internet of Things can effectively support evidence-based and data-driven decision making to benefit humanity? Four areas require particular attention. We must build understanding of this new paradigm, including its limitations; we must shift our discourse from ‘Big’ to ‘Smart’ data; we must embrace open data; and we must unify data standards around the world.

As we stand at the cusp of an environmental data revolution, harmonising data governance requirements is vital to ensure that evidence-based and data-driven decision making can benefit humanity. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the name given to an emerging integrated technological network, where digital and sensor technologies embedded in vehicles, buildings and other physical devices can communicate with each other using the Internet. Consequently, the IoT promises the potential to create an electronic skin to monitor our environment, driven by scalability and virtually endless connections. Present day examples include Smart homes (e.g. NEST and Amazon echo), Wearables (e.g. Fitbit), Smart Cities, as well as autonomous and connected vehicles, while planetary scale visions include IBM’s Smarter Planet and HP’s Central Nervous Systems for the Earth (CeNSE).

Today, relatively inexpensive IoT devices are being deployed on a large scale, generating diverse, granular and real-time data. By accessing this rich data, the IoT makes otherwise labour-intensive processes simpler, more efficient and cost-effective. In this emerging reality, the IoT offers the possibility for new forms of compliance monitoring and evidence-based regulation, and could revolutionise the way we monitor the economy and our environment. For example automated and connected vehicles have the potential to make cities greener by reducing congestion, and improve safety and road conditions through preventative and targeted maintenance. Real-time and remote monitoring of lifestyle practices could reduce healthcare costs, while improving overall health and well-being. Therefore, as the IoT becomes more ubiquitous, it will increasingly be viewed as a means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Furthermore, coupled with open government, data and technologies, it has the potential to improve the transparency of the decision making process.

Given that data is regarded as the oil of the 21st Century, the IoT can act as a catalyst to achieve the SDGs and accelerate the rate of global development. However, to do so, the flow of development data – environmental, economic and social – has to be unencumbered to prevent a new digital divide from occurring.

Contemporary applications of the IoT in the environmental monitoring field include natural disaster warning systems, flood management, smart agriculture and air quality monitoring. Given that the applications are diverse and vary across time and scale, the IoT provides us with analytical tools to understand local, regional and global environmental changes in near real-time. By accessing data from these systems and applications, decision and support systems for early detection and responses can be built to better influence and direct preparation efforts and emergency response, thereby minimising loss of life and property. Thus, the IoT could not only become a tool for understanding complexity, but also a means of responding swiftly.

It is worth noting that there are many stakeholders and actors in the environmental field, who use different vocabularies and technologies – and this raises a challenge. Traditionally, there has been little interaction across environmental domains, resulting in data silos. In contrast, the IoT vision hinges on device connectivity and unencumbered data flow, within organisations and sectors, and across sectoral domains. For this imminent future to become a reality, we need to bridge the incongruity between digital opportunities and traditional governance. Consequently, four areas require particular attention.  

First, we need to build greater understanding of this new technological paradigm among leading actors – particularly regarding its limitations. Until recently, monitoring the environment had a specific purpose (such as air or water monitoring, to measure pollution levels), it relied on specialised equipment and trained personnel, and generally followed international or national standards. Such monitoring processes yielded limited data, but decision makers could have clear appreciation for its quality, reliability and consistency. Presently, the same is not true for data collected through IoT devices. Given the relatively cheap costs of sensors, mass deployment by different agencies or organisations for the same application is a possibility. For example, air quality monitoring sensors could be deployed on city buildings, lighting poles, and on vehicles. However, since devices may vary in quality, be used by people with different training and skillsets, and the data generated may or may not be quality controlled, we cannot place the same trust in these devices as we do with traditional monitoring equipment. Therefore a range of frameworks and clear guidelines must be developed to increase data reliability and trust.

Secondly, as environmental IoT devices become more ubiquitous, we need to shift the dominant discourse and practices from ‘Big’ to ‘Smart’ data – i.e. towards devices and data that are fit for purpose in relation to their application. In particular, data for policy and/or compliance monitoring needs to be of higher quality than data used for general awareness raising. Alas, currently, we do not distinguish between device and/or data quality. Given the imminent deployment of billions of sensors, this problem is exacerbated all the more. Additionally, we presently don’t know how sensors will deteriorate over time in the real world, and what impact this may have on the data generated.

Thirdly, while governments have embraced open data, certain companies are increasingly closing up their datasets or making them available for a fee or via license. Given that data is regarded as the oil of the 21st Century, the IoT can act as a catalyst to achieve the SDGs and accelerate the rate of global development. However, to do so, the flow of development data – environmental, economic and social – has to be unencumbered to prevent a new digital divide from occurring. If private stakeholders increasingly close their datasets, it will result in what one may call ‘the tragedy of commodification’, resulting in a situation akin to “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”. This, unfortunately, seems to be the current trend with environmental data. Certain companies while providing users’ control of who sees their data may not allow users to delete, update and amend machine, production or administrative data. Furthermore, they treat the large amounts of data generated by their devices as a private resource to be harnessed for profit. Consequently, without discoverability, availability, accessibility and (re)usability of data, the next generation of innovations in environmental regulation will remain inconsistent, and in some way abstract.

Finally, unifying standards is of crucial importance. Environmental data is produced by many stakeholders, including government departments and agencies, private companies, community groups, NGOs, citizens, etc. Hence, while standards help to consolidate technology, networks and data requirements, and assist with interoperability within a given sector or environmental domain, they fall short in cross-sectoral coordination. By overcoming the siloed nature of environmental regulatory practice, we must develop adaptive policy to inform stakeholders on the ever-changing natural environment. This new form of policy needs to be informed by a ‘connected collective intelligence’, resulting from the synergistic interaction between humans and the multitude of ‘things.’

Chacko Thomas

Chacko Thomas is an experienced consultant and researcher in the field of energy systems and climate change regulation and policy. He is an Electrical Engineer, with a Masters in Energy Studies and Environmental Law. Chacko’s doctoral research lies at the intersection of ‘complexity science’ and environmental regulation. In the emerging reality of the Internet of Things, Chacko seeks to understand how environmental policy and regulation adapt to meet the needs and challenges of a rapidly evolving technological landscape.