In Today’s Internet of Things, YOU Are the Thing

The Internet of Things was a hot item at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. A vast array of Internet-enabled devices was on display, everything including the Baby Glgl smart bottle holder (it tells your smartphone if your baby’s bottle isn’t at the optimal angle), the Belty (it automatically loosens your belt if you overindulge at a meal), to Whirlpool’s “detergent assistant,” a feature on one of its high-end washers, that can order detergent when your stock is running low.

Of course, a slew of more useful network-enabled devices was also on display, including gizmos for monitoring health, home-monitoring items, and more. But the theme here is that the Internet of Things seems to be at that stage in the adoption cycle where manufacturers and inventors are hell-bent on network-enabling ALL THE THINGS in the hope that, someday, the market will tell us what actually makes sense, according to the ancient adage: “Network it all! Let the market sort it out.”

While the market is busy sorting out just what makes sense in the Internet of Things via the proxy of what we consumers will actually buy, I keep thinking that the Internet of Things, as it exists today, is really the Internet of You. Much as with Facebook or Google, you, the consumer, are the “thing” being networked. (The CEO of Jawbone claims this proudly in a January 5 column in the Huffington Post; I am not quite as sanguine.)

Here’s what I mean. The ubiquitous smartphone that so many of us carry around is giving off endless data about you, harvested by smart retailers and others. Your phone, the most networked thing in any of our lives, is a proxy for you. Here’s an example. Several years ago, I went to my local Kohl’s in search of some shoes. On entering the store, I saw an advertisement that I could text a phrase to a certain number to receive 15% off that day’s purchase. I did so, of course, not thinking through the reason that Kohl’s — a consummate retailer — would be offering a surprise additional discount to someone who was already in the store.

Later, it dawned on me. My desire to save a few bucks on that shopping trip gave Kohl’s the ability to connect my location in the store, my cell phone number, my cell phone’s MAC (which the wireless network in the store could pick up), and my purchases (when I used the coupon at checkout). If I paid by debit or credit card (which I did), Kohl’s had opportunity to capture my name, and by extension, all sorts of additional information about me. Not only that, but thanks to the cell phone metadata, assuming they had installed inexpensive wireless devices around the store in each department to gather data, they would know pretty well where I was in the store and how much time I spent in each section. As it turns out, this is almost certainly what was happening. As early as summer 2013, The New York Times was reporting on this sort of technology.

This sort of user tracking is common across many retailers. If your cell phone is turned on in a store, you can be certain that information about where your phone goes and where it spends time is being tracked, even if it’s anonymous. If you pull up a coupon on your phone to be scanned at checkout, all your in-store behavior is suddenly directly connected to you, the individual — to be used across time and space.

This does not even scratch the surface of what could be done by legally empowered law enforcement or other, less legally grounded, agencies.

I do not suggest you leave your smartphone at home, or event put it in airplane mode when you walk into a store. But I do want to highlight that the Internet of Things, as described in the media, is really two approaches. One is using your smartphone as a proxy for you — the Internet of You. The other is using the network and a computer to interact and learn from your environment — the Internet of Things. Don’t confuse one for the other and be discouraged about the entire concept based on the former.

What Could the “Internet of Library Things” Be?

At the recent ALA Annual Conference, I attended the OCLC Symposium on the Internet of Things, hosted by Lisa Carlucci Thomas and presented by Daniel Obodovski, co-author of The Silent Intelligence: The Internet of Things. (I wrote up my notes in an earlier post.) At the end of the talk, Mr. Obodovski asked the audience what they thought libraries should do if/when the Internet of Things came into being? The responses were varied, but were more like “RFID on steroids” — better circulation of materials, availability of equipment, and the like. These are mostly evolutionary steps, but the last one or two are more revolutionary.

So, I’ve been trying to think of less evolutionary and more revolutionary ideas. I have not, frankly, been particularly successful. But here are some of the things I can see happening:

  • Help library visitors find a space suitable to their needs (quiet study areas, low noise, full-on conversation) by installing noise-level monitors in each study space and simple sensors in each chair. This way, someone looking for a deserted, quiet area can easily find the available table off in the back corner, while a small group looking to conduct a group study session can find a free table in an area where there is already light conversation.
  • Put motion sensors in study rooms so that a list of available and in-use study rooms can be shown to library visitors. Library visitors will know which correctly sized study area is free, and they can then let their study group know where to come. Bonus points for tying these sensors into the study room lights for energy savings — the lights go off when the room is empty.
  • Show library visitors newly purchased books they are likely to enjoy when they enter the library. Combine information about books on your new-book shelf with each visitor’s checkout history to send a list of books that are on the new-book shelf to their device as they enter the building.
  • Impromptu book discussion clubs. (This is bordering on the creepy, but I wanted to see if you are paying attention.) Identify other people in the library with have similar reading interests and offer to introduce them to each other.

What would you do with pervasive connectivity of everything within your library? Let me know in the comments.

Incidentally, Jason Griffey talks about a number of other things libraries could do with cheap sensors in his chapter, “The Case for Open Hardware in Libraries,” in the recently-published LITA Guide, Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know.

RSS Creator

Dave Walker at the Cal State San Marcos library announced a preview version of his RSS Creator (version 0.1). A Flash demo of the software is available. Tools like this really open the doors to bring the benefits of RSS to our patrons — without necessarily needing to educate our patrons on what RSS is or how it’s used. Walker writes in Web4Lib:

The system leverages Ex Libris’ SFX and Metalib systems (using Metalib’s
XML-based API) to create the feeds, but the idea behind it is not specific to SFX or Metalib, and could be done with other technology. Here are some of the benefits:
(1) Gives a library instant access to 20,000 to 40,000 or more feeds [by creating] an RSS feed for any journal or newspaper indexed by one of our databases, so long as that database is searchable via
(2) Requires virtually no discovery, collection, or maintenance. All of the information about the journals is already available (and updated) in the SFX knowledge base. A library simply downloads this information out of SFX, uploads it into RSS Creator….
(3) All links point back to SFX
It is, in other words, a large, free RSS-based table of contents system. I just need to find some time in between more pressing matters to finish it up. But I’m hoping to roll it out to our faculty here this fall.
[Via the Web4Lib listserv. Original posting.

Update — Ann Arbor District Library & RSS

Ed Vielmetti let me know that the Ann Arbor District Library catalog and blog combination is up and running.

You can browse the catalogablog (with apologies to David Bigwood) without a login. Library staff post books to the blog, and library patrons can add their own comments. Blogs are provided, at this writing, for books, audio, and video, with breakdowns by age within each section. All subscribable, of course, by RSS.