The latest era within the broader digital revolution is the internet of things — previously dumb objects are increasingly collecting and communicating data to make them more useful — and the implications and opportunities for government service delivery are profound.
Predictions vary wildly but the more conservative suggest at least 25 billion such things will be on the internet by the end of this decade, collecting vast amounts of data about their usage or relevant events taking place around them, and getting on with their job with less and less human participation. In terms of its potential to generate public value, the numbers being talked about are also immense.
Glenn Archer, who left his role as the federal government’s chief information officer last February before popping up in May as a research vice-president for global technology consultancy Gartner, will be exploring how this emerging era fits into the digital government journey tomorrow at a Canberra summit hosted by the Australian Information Industry Association.
“The primary focus will be that IoT represents an enormous opportunity to government; that it does present an opportunity to lower the cost associated with delivering good quality services and a better outcome to citizens, as well as a platform to eventually engage more actively with them,” he told The Mandarin. “In the long run, data from IoT-supported devices is going to add to the capacity to interpret behaviour and needs more broadly, and to respond to those from a policy perspective; this is the ‘big data’ scenario.”
But watch out; the internet of things is currently at the “peak of inflated expectations” on the Hype Cycle, Gartner’s well-known proprietary standardised curve for new technology breakthroughs. If the curve is to be believed, a backlash called the “trough of disillusionment” is soon to follow as early examples fail to live up to the promise.
It’s only in recent years that governments have begun to emerge from a difficult period where a “combination of analogue data and digital data” has slowed down the implementation of digital government initiatives, according to Archer, who led Centrelink’s first foray into online service delivery in 2002 and continued in senior federal government IT roles for over a decade.
“Often that analogue data is impeding the potential to fully digitise the experience, and now, that analogue component is disappearing, so the potential to make these interactions between citizens and government entirely digital and in some ways even entirely transparent, I think is emerging as a real opportunity for governments around the world,” he said.” … there’s no doubt that at the moment, national and federal governments are somewhat behind the curve.”
Adoption in the government realm is beginning from the ground up, as local councils and municipalities begin to imagine the possibilities to save money and become smart cities. Among them is the ACT Government, which plans to trial a system later this year to allow motorists to find empty parking spaces through a mobile app.
“Our expectation is that this will sort of filter up,” Archer said. “IoT will form another contributor to the kind of big data agenda that’s playing out and over time you’ll start to see state and national, federal governments look to IoT as a source of additional insight, as well as … automation of interactions with citizens.”
One example is an app called The Boston Bump, which uses the accelerometers in mobile devices to detect the impact when people drive over a significant bump in the road, and sends just that information along with an anonymous location back to the government.
“When they’ve got a thousand cars that have crossed a particular point and their phones have reported that there’s been a bump when the car has passed that point, they’ve got very strong evidence that there’s something wrong with the road there,” explained Archer. “The difference is that the driver has not had to do a thing. They probably haven’t even thought about it and yet the local government has become aware that there’s a need to repair the road, and they’ve got strong statistical evidence about it. That’s a very good example of how you can automate this interaction with government and the net result is a huge benefit to both parties.”
Within the Commonwealth, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service — being that it deals with a lot of things coming into the country — is also keen on the IoT in the form of smart containers and packages.
“But,” Archer added, “there’s no doubt that at the moment, national and federal governments are somewhat behind the curve.” He says the use cases for larger jurisdictions, and particularly federated ones like Australia, are still emerging as “a whole range of issues around standards” are sorted out and wireless networks become more ubiquitous.
“I think the role for national and federal governments actually, at the moment, is more in the area of enabling this technology,” he explained. “So that’s around putting in place necessary regulations, legislation, and agreeing to standards to be adopted. At the moment there’s a plethora of them and until we can land on a smaller subset it makes it very difficult to look to see how you can develop integrated services that can span an entire nation.
“You can cope with adopting a proprietary solution when you’re dealing with just a city and the nature of the investment is relatively modest in contrast to those that you’re trying to address at a national level.”