Starting to play with the Internet of things

Unlike some people, who find it invasive, I love the concept of the Internet of things. I’m truly excited by some of the possibilities that a world driven by data opens up. Sure, there are issues to overcome (primarily around privacy and connectivity) – but anyone who believes their data isn’t already being captured by service providers (even if those providers don’t yet know how to handle the massive volumes of data) is in for a shock. So why not embrace the possibilities and use our increasingly smart world to our collective advantage?

In my recent presentation to the BCS Internet Special Interest group, I referred to the Technology Strategy Board‘s Future Internet Report, which talks about [emphasis added by me]:

“An evolving convergent Internet of things and services that is available anywhere, anytime as part of an all-pervasive omnipresent socio–economic fabric, made up of converged services, shared data and an advanced wireless and fixed infrastructure linking people and machines to provide advanced services to business and citizens.”

The report also acknowledges the need for more than just “bigger pipes” to handle the explosion in data volumes. We do need a capable access mechanism but we also need infrastructure for the personalisation of cloud services and for machine to machine (M2M) transactions; and we also need convergence to enable a transformational change in both public and private service delivery.

That’s the big picture but scaling back down to a personal level, one of my colleagues, David Gentle (@davegentle – who happens to be the main author of Fujitsu’s Technology Perspectives microsite) highlighted a site called Pachube to me last week. I first came across Pachube a few months back but [partly because it used to be a chargeable service (it became free at the start of this month)] it got added to my “list-of-things-to-have-a-better-look-at-one-day” (that day rarely comes, by the way!). This time I had a better look and I found it to be pretty cool.

Pachube is basically a cloud-based broker for connected devices with a web service to manage real-time data and a growing ecosystem of applications to feed and consume data. That sounded like it might need some programming (i.e. could be difficult for me these days) but then I found a method to hook an energy monitor up to the web, with no coding required!

I’ve written before about the EnergyFit (Current Cost) power meter that E-ON sent me. I wasn’t a fan of E-ON’s software so I hooked it up to Google PowerMeter for a while, but that service has closed down (along with Microsoft’s Hohm service – which I don’t think even made it to the UK). Using a USB to serial driver and a companion application I now have one of my computers feeding data from my Current Cost meter to the Pachube website, where it gets transformed into JSON, XML or CSV format and “magic” can be performed. I used the Mac OS X software versions of the driver and the application but there are also Windows (driver/application) and Linux (driver/application) variants that I have not tested. The process of setting up a Pachube feed has also changed slightly since the original guidance was written but the basic steps are:

  1. Install the USB-serial drivers.
  2. Install the application
  3. Run the application and select the appropriate serial port (for me, on my Mac, that is /dev/tty.usb-serial).
  4. Create a feed (a push feed – and however many times I turn it private it seems to switch back to public…).
  5. Paste the XML version of the feed into the application.
  6. Set up a secure sharing (API) key (you probably don’t want to use the master key) and paste it into the application.
  7. Save preferences and wait for the application to start feeding data, at which point the feed should show as live

The application I used and the Pachube website seem to work together to configure the datastreams within the feed (one for temperature and one for power) and it’s all set to go.

Once the feed is live, there are a load of apps listed on the Pachube website with everything from graphs and visualisations to mapping tools and augmented reality. I decided to create a page to display some of these, starting out with a customisable PNG-based graph from my feed. That worked, so I added another, together with a PachuDial and a couple of PachuBlog gadgets (sadly, these are Flash-based, so don’t work on the iPad…). Next I created a second feed to consume the power usage from the first one and measure the associated carbon footprint.

Having played around with energy usage, I found that I could also use Pachube to monitor my Twitter account (a pull feed this time) – which might be useful too.

Now I’ve mastered the basics with my Current Cost meter, I might try some home automation using Arduino devices – although that looks to have quite a steep learning curve on the electronics front… In the meantime, you can see the Home electricity usage and Twitter statistics pages that I created using just the Pachube platform and some basic HTML.

[Update 30 November 2011: added comment about Pachube becoming free to use]

Connecting an E.ON EnergyFit Monitor to Google PowerMeter

The energy company that I buy my electricity and gas from (E.ON) is currently running an “EnergyFit” promotion where they will send you an energy monitor for free. A free gadget sounded like a good idea (I have a monitor but it’s the plugin type – this monitors the whole house) so I applied for one to help me reduce our family’s spiraling energy costs (and, ahem, to help us reduce our environmental footprint).

The EnergyFit package appeared on my doorstep sometime over the weekend and setup was remarkably easy – there’s a transmission unit that loops around the main electricity supply cable (without any need for an electrician) and a DC-powered monitor that connects to this using a wireless technology called C2, which works on the 433MHz spectrum (not the 2.4GHz that DECT phones, some Wi-Fi networks, baby monitors, etc. use).  Within a few minutes of following E.ON’s instructions, I had the monitor set up and recording our electricity usage.

The monitor is supplied with E.ON’s software to help track electricity usage over time and it seems to work well – as long as you download the data from the monitor (using the supplied USB cable) every 30 days (that’s the limit of the monitor’s internal memory).

I wondered if I could get this working with Google PowerMeter too (Microsoft Hohm is not currently available in the UK) and, sure enough, I did.  This is what I had to do:

  1. Head over to the Google PowerMeter website.
  2. Click the link to Get Google PowerMeter.
  3. At this point you can either sign up with a utility company, or select a device.  The E.ON-supplied device that I have is actually from a company called Current Cost so I selected them from the device list and clicked through to their website.
  4. Once on the Current Cost website, click the button to check that your device will work with Google PowerMeter.
  5. The E.ON EnergyFit monitor is an Envi device – click the Activate button.
  6. Complete the registration form in order to download the software required to connect the monitor to Google.
  7. Install the software, with includes a registration process with Google for an authorisation key that is used for device connection.
  8. After 10 minutes of data upload, you should start to see your energy usage appear on the Google PowerMeter website.

Of course, these instructions work today but either the Google or Current Cost websites are subject to change – I can’t help out if they do but you should find the information you need here.

There are some gotchas to be aware of:

  • The monitor doesn’t keep time very well (mine has drifted about 3 minutes a day!).
  • Configuring the monitor (and downloading data to the E.ON software) requires some arcane keypress combinations.
  • According to the release notes supplied with the Current Cost software, it only caches data for 2 hours so, if your PC is switched off (perhaps to save energy!), Google fills in the gaps (whereas the E.ON Energy Fit software can download up to 30 days of information stored in the monitor).
  • You can’t run both the E.ON EnergyFit and the Current Cost Google PowerMeter applications at the same time – only one can be connected to the monitor.

If your energy company doesn’t supply power monitors, then there are a variety of options for purchase on the Google PowerMeter website.