Monday, August 29, 2016

Internet of Philosophy: Municipal

Intro to a Three Parter

Today, I'm going to start a three piece run on three different areas/levels/implementation spaces for the Internet of Things: Municipal, Commercial/Industrial, and Consumer.  For each, I plan on discussing the basics, pros and cons, and a potential guiding philosophy (hence the title) that may help those that build systems within each of these spaces.

I'm doing this because the Internet of Things is too all-encompassing a term.  Too often I read articles that appear to be about smart homes but are really about enterprise implementations.  As I filter my IoT reading for smart homes, it got me wondering how many articles with enterprise or government sounding titles were really about consumer level IoT.  There are no clear cut boundaries and, in the long term, there should not be as everything gets integrated.  But for the nonce (TIL of brit-slang nonce), these systems aren't connected or really working together in any way.

This separation is due mostly to funding.  Is the taxpayer, the stock holders or the private citizen paying for it?  Occasionally, it's all three as is the case with the slow, grinding move towards a smart power grid.  Usually, though, we pay for IoT systems as a member of only one of those groups.

Municipal Internet of Things

The Basics

Connected sensor automation and implementation (a ten-cent way of saying IoT) in the government sector ultimately falls on the shoulders of the city, not the state or nation.  This is because the vast majority of what needs to be controlled is infrastructure that is bought and maintained by cities.  Things like street lights, traffic signals and vehicle fleets.  Many of these things have been managed by rudimentary smart systems for decades: think of speed timed traffic signals or photo switches on street lights.  However, these systems are becoming more sophisticated.  When in-pavement detectors were added a a few decades ago, traffic signals got smarter.  Then there was the addition of time-of-day timing that allows busier roadways to flow better at the expense of feeder roads.

But traffic is only the most visible area of Municipal IoT.  GPS sensors on city vehicles are part of it, allowing real time data on when and where these assets are and how they are being used.  The contentious police body cams are part of it.  Building management and employee tracking are certainly part of it.

In the future, there are potential applications in smart garbage cans that tell their minders when they are full, allowing for smarter routing and fewer employees managing more cans.  Something similar could be set up for city bathrooms and other sanitation needs.  Roadways could report when and where they need to be repaired or if there is an accident.  Again, there are similar applications for the electrical grid, phone lines and other communication systems, but that starts to stray into enterprise IoT and next week's topic.

For the state and federal government, IoT implementation is a bit trickier.  Certainly, the building/fleet/employee management stuff all applies.  But the control of highly localized resources across the governed geography is different.  The state and federal governments do not own those resources except in special cases like military bases and national parks.  The biggest area where IoT can help the federal government is in the military and there are all kinds of scary issues going on there.


  • Potential to speed up bureaucracy
  • Reduce municipal operating costs (after initial implementation), especially on the energy side
  • Allow faster response to emergencies and other system failures
  • Potential for greater transparency of spending, usage and power abuses.


  • High initial expense and opportunities for budget over runs.
  • Without city wide standards, systems may not talk to each other without a lot of extra man power, thereby negating some of the cost savings.
  • Military AI taking over the world and eliminating humans.
  • Privacy concerns as the public is caught on more cameras and sensors on a regular basis.  This is THE BIG ONE and has been discussed for over a century, most notably with Michel Foulcault's Panopticon concept which was popularized in George Orwell's 1984.

Future Guidance

My goal here is provide some thoughts on how these systems should be implemented.  Keep in mind that they WILL be implemented.  They should be: the cost savings and other benefits are too great to ignore.  But how they are used and with what end is what I'm trying to get at here.

To do this, I'm going to pick on the LAPD.  Specifically, their motto: To Protect and to Serve.  Municipal IoT certainly helps with both aspects of this.  However, if too much emphasis is placed on the "Protect" side, then we end up in Oceania with rats chewing at our faces.  The emphasis should be placed on the "Serve" and for every implementation, a series of questions should be asked:
  • How does this system better serve the members of this community?
  • What does this system do to ease the tax burden of the city?
  • What additional transparencies are created by using this system?

Next week, I'll try tackling Enterprise IoT in a few of its forms.

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