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]

The perils of online billing…

Like most people, the mail I receive from the postman these days breaks into three categories:

As I use Direct Debits to pay my bills, they generally need little more than a cursory glance before being “filed” (i.e. chucked in a big box until I get around to doing it properly) but I also elect for paper-free billing where it makes sense.

I say “where it makes sense” because so many organisations (e.g. First Direct, ING Direct, Marks and Spencer Money) seem to think that providing records in HTML, CSV or Quicken format is enough – and it’s not, in my opinion.  The paper-free billing that has value to me provides a PDF of the paper bill that would have been sent to me by post and organisations that do this include American Express, BT and E-ON.

The wrong way

If you were watching my Twitter stream over the weekend, you might have seen me ranting about BT‘s paper-free billing though, because there is a catch: and it’s one that’s worth knowing about.

I mentioned how haphazard my paper filing is and my digital filing is not much better.  I get the emails notifying me that my bill is ready for download and I generally think “OK, I’ll look at that later”.  After all, I know it will be paid (by Direct Debit) and, if there is a problem, I’ll notice the exceptionally large/small transaction on my bank account and investigate at that time.  Every once in a while, I get around to downloading the statements and storing them in my “digital filing cabinet” (my NAS, at home).

Except that I’m finding more and more of my providers don’t maintain a complete history for download. And BT was the one that really took the biscuit… I logged into BT’s website to retrieve my statements and successfully downloaded around 15 or 16 months’ worth. My problem was that I had a gap between the last time I did this, and the oldest statement available online.  I called BT, who told me I only have access to 6 months history (really? I can see more than that!) and that I could write a letter requesting the missing statements. Smelling a rat, I asked how much that would cost. £4.80 per bill, I was told. I said I wouldn’t be needing the address, thank you very much, and hung up.

Then I hit Twitter:

If you're going to encourage me to go for paper-free billing, the least you can do is keep my complete history online... #BTDoesntCare
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson
#BT have advised me to *write them a letter* then they want me to pay £4.80 for each archived bill. So much for paper-free billing #epicfail
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson

I got several sympathetic responses (including one follower who says BT promised him unlimited access to statements when he signed up for paper-free billing so he pushed the issue and was sent every single statement since his account was opened…) but one in particular copied in the @BTCare account. I had previously ignored that account, preferring hashtags like #BTDoesntCare because my previous experience of @BTCare had been unhelpful, but this time they responded with a URL for a web form, promising to follow up the issue.

The next day (a Sunday, no less, and which should be applauded), BT called (from a call centre in Northern Ireland, rather than the normal Indian operation) and explained that I only had access to 6 months statements online and words to the effect of “it wasn’t their fault I hadn’t downloaded my statements in time, as they had sent them to me each month by email”. I pointed out that they hadn’t sent me the statements – what they actually sent was an email saying words to the effect of “your statement is ready, when you want to go and take a look” but not “be quick before it’s gone”. I also highlighted that they give me a £1 a month discount for paper-free billing and to charge any more than that was unreasonable – £4.80 for access to old bills was obscene, especially as I don’t want a paper bill – the PDFs will be fine.  At this point BT changed tack, claiming that they had some discretion, and offering to email me the missing bills.  After needing to speak to my wife (because it’s her name on the account and they can’t cope with two people being jointly responsible for a bill…), they sent me the missing statements and I was a happy camper. Almost.

I say almost because this shouldn’t happen. How many people who are less connected online, or less pushy on the phone, would have just paid up the £33.60 BT wanted for seven statements and invested  time/effort/cost into posting a letter? And why is there only 6 months’ history available (and I’m “lucky” because I can see a bit more than that)?  The answer to that is poor IT, or poor decision making – presumably someone made an arbitrary decision to limit online statement availability and reduce the storage cost to BT – ironically, these statements are clearly available to BT’s customer services staff, although they may well be dynamically generated (as they used to be on the customer-facing website which, incidentally, was a painful process and the reason I rarely went in to download them!). Or, to take another view, how much did sorting out this mess cost BT (quite a bit, I would imagine, so surely it’s better to get it right first time)?

Thanks to @ for fixing up my issue with old statements: shame I had to push so hard; If only first contact centre could have helped...
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson

The right way

Now let me give you an example of an organisation that has paper-free statements working perfectly: American Express.

I would use AmEx exclusively if only their cards were as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard but their web portal allows me to download the most recent six months’ statements and, crucially, to request any previous statements for retrieval within 24 hours, at no cost to me.  At the back end, I’m sure the statements are pulled from near-line or off-line storage to on-line, managing American Express’ storage efficiently but almost transparently to me, and delivering an excellent customer experience.

I’ll finish this post (I’m sorry, it is a bit or a rant), with a partial retweet from Simon Bisson that just about sums up the situation for me:

RT @: [re: my missing statements] [...] They're records, they should be available to us for as long as we have accounts ^MW Hear hear
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson

Well done American Express. BT and E-ON you need to do better. Bottom of the class: almost everyone else I deal with…

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.