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The language of the Internet of Things

By GeoConnexion - 28th March 2013 - 14:30

More and more devices are using the Internet. But for them to be able to exchange data with each other, there needs to be a common language, says Steve Liang.

Although it receives a lot of press today, the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) is not a new idea. A UN report in 2005 said: ‘We are heading into a new era of ubiquity where… humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of traffic,’ while an ITU report of the same year said: ‘Connections will multiply and create an entirely new dynamic network of networks – an Internet of Things.’

What makes a ‘dynamic network of networks’ possible? Standards. All the things we seek to connect together in the IoT must ‘speak’ a common language of open service interfaces and data encodings. They must, of course, connect to the Internet, but they must also, for example, communicate, in an ad hoc fashion, without direct human intervention, information such as presence, device identity and device-specific information of many kinds, such as state (for example, ‘on’ or ‘off’), location, time and so on. If they send or receive data, such as an image, video or temperature, as well as instructions, the data must be encoded in a well-known and open encoding.

Sensor web standards

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) sensor web enablement (SWE) standards are international web-service standards that focus on the content of sensor information and on making sensor observations useful to end-user applications. SWE standards allow users to assess how fit observations are to use and enable accurate processing of the sensed information to create derived information suitable for users’ needs.

In much the same way that HTML and HTTP standards enable the exchange of certain basic types of information on the web, the OGC SWE standards enable the publishing and discovery of sensors and sensor observations; the exchange and processing of sensor observations; and the tasking of sensors and sensor systems.

What else is needed?

The IoT, however, has many requirements not fully addressed by the SWE standards: compact encodings and protocols for battery-powered wireless sensors, location/navigation in small areas, navigation-to-thing, context-specific ‘around me’ use cases, visualisation in 3D city models and indoor models, space-time web navigation, big data, massive transaction rates, semantic translation, privacy and access controls, proliferation of related standards, and so on. Meeting these requirements is taking on incredible importance with the dramatic rise in the use of sensor-rich mobile phones, cloud-based apps for monitoring and control, and the rapid emergence of IoT domains such as the Smart Grid and smart cars.

In today’s world, most sensors have proprietary software interfaces defined by their manufacturers but used selectively by developers of isolated integrated systems. New application programming interfaces (APIs) are requested and developed as needed, considering resource limitations and risk. This requires significant investment in sensor integration by application developers, as well as investment by providers of sensors, gateways, portals and services in which observations are used. Device and operating system vendors may control device and application ‘ecosystems’ large enough to attract app developers and users, but developers and users are nevertheless frustrated by the lack of interoperability among the ecosystems.

New standards

Standard interfaces for sensors in the IoT and the Web of Things (WoT) – two terms that are frequently used interchangeably – will permit the proliferation of new, high-value services with lower overhead of development and wider market reach. It will also lower the cost and increase the market size for sensor and gateway providers, resulting in more competition, lower cost sensors and more sensor variety.

As a result of several workshops organised by the OGC, the OGC membership approved the charter for an OGC sensor web for IoT standards working group and the first meeting was held in Seoul, South Korea, in October last year. The initial scope of work of the working group is to make observations captured by IoT devices easily available to applications and users through data aggregation portals. However, the long-term goal of the working group is to develop one or more standards based on existing web protocols, while also leveraging the existing and proven OGC SWE family of standards.

Many standards organisations must work together to enable a standards-based IoT, but memoranda of understanding between these organisations is insufficient. The real work of standards co-ordination is done by the people who participate in the standards development organisations’ working groups.

Companies, organisations and government departments that want improved IoT interoperability need to step up and support cross-group participation by technical experts, who will do the necessary bits-and-bytes work of standards organisation collaboration. We invite such participation in the sensor web for IoT standards working group.

We are heading into a new era of ubiquity where… humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of traffic.

Steve Liang is chair of the OGC Sensor Web for Internet of Things standards working group.

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