The Internet was neither inevitable nor a simple happy accident. Similar to the evolution of our planet, the creation of the internet was a mess of interactions and a series of colliding forces and experiments. Most histories of the internet focus on geniuses that changed the world of computing; but they ignore the larger picture that the internet and its architecture was defined by an evolving society. As we enter into the era of ubiquitous computing, in which our computational interfaces will be ever more ingrained into our surrounding things, we will have the ability to monitor our environments anytime and anywhere. Also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), this new wave of computing should be expected to have a different architecture than that of the modern day Internet. Because it is embedded into our environments, it might even be expected to be a changing and living complex structure best defined by our environmental societal values and natural systems.
The Internet of Things is defined in two components: (1) digital sensing technology embedded into surrounding things such as temperature or gas sensors, GPS, or video and audio data collecting devices; and (2) a networked communication system that shares the digital sensors’ information through nodes and connections. With these two components, a number of new environmental initiatives have started to employ IoT projects for conservation. In the paper “Adopting the internet of things technologies in environmental management in South Africa,” the authors noted examples including the monitoring ability of microchips on buildings or in streams to relay data about air pollution, nuclear radiation leaks, floodwaters, and e coli outbreaks. It further discussed even including animals into the Internet of Things and cited that homing pigeons have been equipped with GPS and air quality monitoring technology to relay information back to systems in real-time.
Figure 1: Simple graphic of Internet of Things structure
While these are all cases of innovative ways to use digital sensor technology, the second component of the Internet of Things, the architecture of the IoT networked communication system, is more complex. Similar to the Internet, values and governance standards will help define the architectures for these types of systems and so they will reflect intended societal goals. Within the same paper, an example of architecture is discussed. To aid rangers in their protection of animals from poachers, a system of collars is worn by zebras to detect heard movement. The paper describes this as, “The system measures the GPS location of each animal and communicates the information using peer-to-peer short range radios. In addition to the mobile zebra collar nodes, the base node is mobile within the network, receiving information from whichever nodes are nearby through long-distance radio during fixed communication windows.”
Figure 2: Leopard fitted with GPS collar from Savannah Tracking
This system resembles structures of the web in which the base node (a single piece of hardware that controls all data flows) can receive information from other nodes nearby. However, our large-scale Internet does not rely on one base node to relay this information. Having one base node leaves the project with low survivability and vulnerable to breaking down. Overall cases like this field-based IoT project will have to cycle through a number of structures depending on the governance of specific monitoring projects. Cases of high security (monitoring poaching) will require higher survivability and have a higher degree of locked information centrality between the component parts (the information is in a controlled and private network with few people receiving the information). On the other hand, projects intending to engage the public in greater citizen science and awareness will look to have an open-source and decentralized structure potentially allowing for new hardware nodes to be placed in my amateurs themselves. One example might allow citizens to place their own digital sensor into a soil project and it immediately joins the other soil monitors’ network over a mobile app.
Ubiquitous computing for the environment should be expected to be as multi-layered and chaotic as environmental governance itself with scales of power and a variety of structures. Analyzing the architectures and agendas of our environmental entities will allow for us to better create appropriate networks for the Internet of Things. Perhaps the constantly editable and evolving nature of digitality and the environmentally embedded nature of ubiquitous computing will bring environmental institutions into the 21st century. With this technology spreading rapidly, we are left with an exciting future some questions of design for our relationship with animals and the environment: How will we design IoT systems that are as resilient and fluid as needed for the coming rapid environmental change? Will the structure of these IoT networks change the way we value citizens as active participants in science and conservation? With machine learning, how can we design these IoT architectures to learn and respond to data fluxes and best communicate what is happening between ecosystems to us?
- Dlodlo, N. “Adopting the internet of things technologies in environmental management in South Africa.” 2012 International Conference on Environment Science and Engineering. (2012).
- Al-Qaseemi, Sarah, et al. “IoT architecture challenges and issues: Lack of standardization.” Future Technologies Conference. (2016).
Lauren Neville is american student thrilled to be joining the BCM community! With two degrees in Environmental Studies and Communication, Culture & Technology, she is passionate about the role that emerging technologies including drones, sensors, and artificial intelligence can play in biodiversity citizen science initiatives. Before coming to Oxford, she was an urban beekeeper caring for up to 80,000 honeybees in Washington, D.C. and worked at non-profits including the Jane Goodall Institute and Conservation International’s fieldwork office in Fiji.