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Harnessing IoT

To unlock the full value of the Internet of Things, an interdisciplinary team of scholars at USC works to build the business and technical “marketecture.”

August 21, 2019
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Almost three years ago, a multidisciplinary group of about 50 University of Southern California faculty members got together to discuss the Internet of Things (IoT), that network of “smart” things, or devices—phones, televisions, traffic sensors—that collects and relays data.

Many of those present didn’t know each other, but, “We discovered we had common research interests,” said Jerry Power, USC Marshall assistant professor of clinical marketing and executive director of USC Marshall's Institute for Communications Technology Management (CTM).

That first meeting among strangers stimulated a program that is now bearing fruit, as a well-attended member event on the USC University Park Campus in August demonstrated.

The Drive to Connect

As a part of CTM, Power had helped build an economic model to understand how to valuate the size and strength of IoT data.

“We’re at ground zero, working on ideas that will change behaviors and markets.”— Jerry Power, USC Marshall assistant professor of clinical marketing and executive director of USC Marshall's Institute for Communications Technology Management (CTM).

“The CTM work concluded that if we continued down the path of creating IoT silos, where devices talk to dedicated cloud applications, we’d never capture the full value of an IoT network,” Power said. “We realized that IoT deployments cannot be based on a series of independent silos, they have to be managed as a network, like the internet. We realized the technologies needed to independently manage IoT devices and applications was missing—we needed something new, something that would allow us to collect and capitalize on the promise of IoT.”

At the USC meeting, Power met Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Professor and Ming Hsieh Faculty Fellow in Electrical Engineering in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. His experience in the design and analysis of algorithms, protocols, and applications for next generation wireless networks and the internet of things was a perfect match for Power’s work on IoT valuation.

From Krishnamachari’s perspective, “We realized that while many of the technology building-blocks being applied to the IoT space were relatively mature, market adoption was hindered by the many interoperability, business, economic challenges these technologies face.”

After that meeting, Power and Krishnamachari began working together to build a new “marketecture” (a mixture of a business and technical architecture) for IoT.

Turning data into insights and action

Soon, the partnership began adapting concepts from CTM and Krishnamachari’s Center for Cyber-Physical Systems and the Internet of Things (CCI) in Viterbi. Cyrus Shahabi, Director of the Integrated Media Systems Center (IMSC), Chair of Computer Science, and Professor of Computer Science, Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Spatial Sciences, also joined the team, bringing a big-data perspective to the concept. Together they created the Intelligent IoT Integrator, better known as I3 “Many new technologies will have an opportunity to be tested and deployed through I3,” said Krishnamachari.

For example, big-data analytics tools. “These can be connected to I3 as ‘data brokers,’” explained Shahabi. “They receive raw streaming datasets from I3, clean, integrate, analyze them on-the-fly, and provide the ‘value added’ results back to the I3 market. ”

“For more than a decade, CCI has been working on technologies related to networking, IoT, distributed computing, mobile applications, data analytics and data economics,” said Krishnamachari. “And at IMSC,” added Shahabi, “we’ve been working on technologies related to data acquisition, cleaning, storage, analysis and presentations so it was easy for us to see the value of IMSC as a provider of 'data brokers' to I3.”   Marshall brought the business perspective that focused the team on a common and unmet market need.

As more people in and outside USC realized the potential of I3, the group of collaborators grew, and it continues to expand. To date, 35 organizations are members of the I3 Consortium, including Hospitality at USC, Oracle, Verizon, Korea University, and the Digital Science and Technology Research institution, Inria, from France. “The I3 effort would not have been kicked off publicly without this support, and the encouragement of USC’s operational departments such as IT Services and Facilities Management,” Krishnamachari said. 

Intelligent IoT Integrator (I)3

The City of Los Angeles also was an early partner. As I3 was launching, the city was working on creating its own IoT plans and policies. “Cities generate a lot of data: traffic patterns, service requests, air quality statistics, and more,” Power said. “If a city can harness and integrate that data systemically, it can use the derived knowledge to save money and improve the quality of life. The city understood this and realized that a series of segmented data silos would not let it leverage the data it collects.”

The I3 marketecture could help. “Within a smart city ecosystem,” explained Krishnamachari, “I3 allows different parties—from data providers and device owners to data analysts, application developers and stakeholders in industry and government—to come together in a common marketplace to exchange value for real-time data in a trusted and secure manner.”

Users download the software needed to run an I3 node that integrates data from multiple sources into one composite data stream. Each component data stream remains under the control of the individual device owner, who gives permission for the use of their data. “It’s built on incentives,” Power said. “Firms can offer cash, coupons, points, etc., if they want access to the data streaming through an I3 node. If people are properly incentivized, they will be empowered to share data with the applications they trust. Essentially, I3 is an incentive/application-driven marketplace.”

The team’s goal is for this marketplace to grow into IoT communities of users, which can link themselves together to create larger communities. “When you start putting more data streams together,” Power said, “you create an environment that stimulates the emergence of a value-added data ecosystem. Incremental value can be created by putting data sets together in ways that create new business insights. From an economic perspective, by improving an application’s access to data, the application’s value is increased. And leveraging data from a single IoT device to many applications, justifies deploying an IoT device. Ultimately, I3 can leverage value both ways, which stimulates market demand.”

Trust is a critical component. Power said consumers will only release data to partners they trust. If they feel their data has been compromised, they have the option of pulling out of a data flow. In an IoT and data-driven environment, the importance of trust increases dramatically for businesses and for consumers.

Ground Zero

One of the I3 testing grounds will be the USC campus. “We want to make USC a smart university,” said Power. “We envision moving from a campus environment operated as a series of structured IoT silos to one where a common IoT infrastructure facilitates access to the data driving university operations.”

It’s going to be a process, Power said, but USC and LA are mapping the future. Together they can leverage the research and technology of the USC team and the larger I3 Consortium with the wealth of data collected by the city.

“We’re at ground zero,” Power said, “working on ideas that will change behaviors and markets.”

The goal, Krishnamachari added, is “to accelerate the adoption of technologies that can be of great societal benefit.”

Current Events

On a recent I3 member conference call, Krishnamachari led a brisk discussion of current activities and needs. The team is preparing for a 2019 release of open source software that users can download to participate in the I3 marketplace.

On the agenda for the call were line items such as “user cases,” or opportunities for I3 application. The list of areas it could be used includes sanitation, entertainment, fire spotter, business districts, as well as others. On the tech side, members were contributing to software development, working out security issues and the economics of the platform (billing, payments).

Now well into the test phase on multiple smart applications such as the identification of open parking spaces across the Los Angeles region (including the USC campus)—I3 is considering the broader implications of its technology developments. At the August member event, presentations from Power and representatives of the cities such as L.A. Pasadena, and Long Beach talked about the need to manage consumer expectations and be good stewards of their data.

“There is more to consider from an ethical perspective than just privacy, though that is obviously important,” said Power. “How do we serve these customers without ultimately disillusioning them about the power of this technology to transform cities and experiences? How to we develop this technology in an efficient and ethical way? Those are the questions you see members of our group working to answer as we get into these use cases.”

They are building a new network. “The Viterbi/Marshall/LA vision is bigger than LA and USC.  We are releasing the software as open source so that anyone, anywhere can follow in our path,” said Power. “We are creating an environment that will allow data network to evolve freely in an open market.  We see ourselves as enablers of the future.”