The internet of things is not about things. It’s about data, and the ease of collecting and analyzing that data to glean some sort of insight. But so far, such data collection and analysis has benefited marketers, CEOs, or governments seeking to control their citizens. This leaves the rest of us rightly wondering why we should give a damn about IoT. If the latest in tech has only helped broaden the gap between rich and poor, eliminate workers, and embolden tyrants while offering the rest of the world cheaper (in both cost and quality) consumer goods, then why celebrate it?
More importantly, how do we take the technology we have today and use it for innovation? Not just in terms of newer business models, but to improve the world around us. The amount of data and compute power we have access to can make more efficient use of energy, improve medical care, and deliver healthier, safer cities. All of which can be done while also using ethical models of data collection that respect the user’s data instead of trafficking in it.
For example, Ecobee, the Toronto-based thermostat maker, created a donate-your-data program in October 2016 that has since helped academics create new insights about building efficiency. Another project, pioneered by Leslie Saxon at the University of Southern California, has used donated heart rhythm data to help physicians understand arhythmias and other heart conditions.
Let’s focus on Ecobee’s efforts.
Fatima Crerar, director of social impact and sustainability at Ecobee, says the company created the program to let customers donate their data after realizing that the information could be used to make buildings more efficient, conserve energy, and potentially lead to other benefits, too. Currently some 40,000 customers have signed up to participate and more than two dozen researchers use the information they offer.
Chong is trying to build a “check engine light” for homes’ energy efficiency. He wants to show people whether their home is leaking more AC or heat than they should. Because homes are built by people, not machines, each contractor may handle elements such as wrapping, insulating, or weatherstripping in different ways, leading to substantial variations in the building’s ability to maintain a comfortable temperature. Using the Ecobee data, Chong has figured out that some homes leak a huge amount of heat or AC. If those leaks were fixed, that energy use could be reduced, saving consumers money and reducing overall consumption.
Chong’s research could let consumers perform a simple test to see how well their homes retain heat or cooling. But Jeff Siegel, a professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, has a bigger goal in mind. He wants to understand how homes are built and how people live in them so he can improve indoor air quality.
Homes have become so well insulated and sealed off from the world that it’s easy to forget how many of their features — and how we behave in them — affect air quality. Sensors and monitoring, he says, give researchers the ability to take all of those fundamentally invisible factors and make them visible to others.
“Air looks like air whether it’s clean or dirty,” Siegel explains. “It’s invisible. IoT starts giving us windows into that invisibility.” I spent an hour talking to Siegel about indoor air quality monitoring, so you can expect a visit from him on the podcast soon. But the tl;dr version of his research is that the best thing you can do to improve your home’s air quality is to buy a high-quality downdraft fan to use when cooking and then actually use it.
His utilization of Ecobee data focused on humidity, and how effectively modern AC units manage to cool the air while also drying it out. New AC units are so efficient they spend less time running than older ones , which means that some homes can be cool but at the same time more humid than they should be. That can promote allergies, but it can also just lead to discomfort.
Presumably if you wanted to use Ecobee’s data to understand how many people leave their homes during the day so you can devise new best practices for telemarketers, the company would say no. As for the data, Crerar says the company worked hard to create a customer-friendly sharing option that keeps personally identifiable information out of researchers’ hands and lets customers opt out of the program.
I asked if users who opt out can request that their data be scrubbed from the program. This is a feature of the newly enacted General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in the EU. However, after talking to the researchers, I didn’t see how such a thing would be possible. And Crerar said that those participating can opt out of any future data collection, but not from having any data they’ve already shared be used.
She says Ecobee tries to explain all of this very transparently in the FAQs associated with the donate-your-data program. During the program’s creation, Ecobee met with about 100 customers to ask for their input. “Good governance over data is a brand-new conversation,” she says. “We built this program and focused on how we would want to be treated and we’re quite eager to continue to make that better.”