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Runaway train designed to keep Australia competitive

A desire to keep Australia competitive on the global landscape was the motivation for Frank Zeichner and his colleagues to form the Internet of Things Alliance Australia (IoTAA).

An organisation held together mainly by volunteers, CEO Zeichner says the reaction to the relatively new industry body over the past 24 months has been amazing.

“It’s an utter runaway train,” said Zeichner from his office in Broadway, Sydney. “It is ridiculous. Our biggest problem is how do we scale it. We have 350 organisations involved and we are growing at 5 per cent per month. When we incorporated as a non-for-profit in July 2015 we had 150 members.”

Zeichner and his colleagues realised Rome wasn’t built in a day so decided to concentrate on certain aspects of the IoT in order to not only prioritise, but strategise with some key industries. This included the food, electricity, manufacturing and transport arenas.

“We identified a whole lot of things that were working overseas but were not necessarily in place here,” said Zeichner. “The key was that the IoT is a broad range of technologies that enable an amazing capability for collecting and sharing, processing and actuating. That requires a lot of collaboration between parties because very few, if any, can do it all. It needs a lot of collaboration between the people who understand how to use the technology and the people who need to use it.”

Zeichner uses the term collaboration quite a bit during the interview. It’s an important part of the IoT development, but something he believes that Australians are not that good at for a variety of reasons. This includes factors such as the continent being isolated from the rest of the world, and, for a long time, relying on its own ingenuity and know-how to get things done. Now, with such a connected world, Australia needs, not so much to get rid of that mindset, but readjust it to encompass the digitisation and changing environment going on around it.

“There is a time to hop on board and a time not to,” said Zeichner. “What I’m seeing internationally is that there’s a greater expectation and urgency in these overseas countries than there is here in Australia. To some degree I think it is because we don’t have as much competition in Australia as overseas. This is especially true for the bigger companies that don’t quite have the same amount of competition and don’t feel the urge to change. I think that the fact that Amazon has come here has put the wind up people. Waiting to be gazumped by people who have worked it out already is not a good way to go for Australia. We can be just as nimble and just as smart. None of it is rocket science. But it does require a tremendous amount of collaboration.”

Then there is the issue of standards. With all these devices talking together they all need to be on the same page, right? Well, yes and no, said Zeichner. It’s important to prioritise what is needed to be put in place. And while standardisation is part of the equation, there is a way things need to be done for an orderly adoption of these technologies to come about.

“The issue is not so much about the standards, it’s about the alignment of requirements of platforms and interoperability,” said Zeichner. “We found that people have not thought about what they are trying to do and what sort of data they need to try and do it. Then we start talking about the platforms and interoperability and standards. So there is a pecking order and what some people are doing is coming in from the middle and they’re trying to solve interoperability problems without knowing what they are trying to fix. Sometimes they can’t see the wood for the trees. We need to sort these problems out and then standards are a secondary issue.”

At a recent meeting on smart cities that was also attended by the City of Sydney’s executive manager of research and corporate planning, Kate Deacon, Zeichner said that Deacon brought up an interesting point. It is estimated that the revenue created by the city over the next 10-15 years is not going to increase by much. However, the number of people visiting and infrastructure projects are growing. As anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of budgeting knows, if you increase expenditure but keep revenue the same, a blowout will occur. What does this have to do with the IoT? Plenty, said Zeichner.

“A classic is that they measure the air quality in Sydney using seven measuring stations around the city that are 22 metres up in the air,” said Zeichner. “Yet there is a plethora of IoT devices that can measure air quality. You won’t need a $100,00 sensor on top of a 22-metre mast to measure air. You could source the results from cheaper IoT-enabled devices.

“Institutions will need to discover how to deal with this flood of data that is coming from multiple sources – not just from the top down inside institutions, but from the bottom up and outside: from businesses, from communities, from individuals. There will be this big mix. Our biggest job then will be curating and validating to see if the data can be trusted or not.”

Most would think that those in the process engineering sector would have a head start. Maybe not with implementing, but understanding what the IoT is all about and where it fits in the industrial landscape. After all, processes, testing and measurement, as well as a whole range of devices are bread and butter for the industry. Again, Zeichner is not totally convinced that the industry knows as much as it thinks it does.

“People in processing engineering companies will need to understand how to discover data,” said Zeichner. “They need to know how to measure the veracity of it through meta data, or even how the meta data is associated with other data. They need to be able to have a data model that will enable them to understand the attributes of the data or sharing it – that is, this kind of data can be used here, or there and what is private and what is not. Under certain circumstances you can share the data, but under other circumstances you can’t due to privacy. There is going to be so much data that managing it will be one thing  and the technology will be another. People need to know this.”

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