Thingful aims to be the Google of the Internet of Things
With over 30 billion IP-connected devices and sensors projected to be in operation by 2020, according to ABI Research, the tech world is positioning the Internet of Things to be one of the biggest drivers of innovation since the steam engine. But much like the evolution of the internet which saw an explosion in user-generated information, all of that data beckons order. A service launched Thursday called Thingful hopes to do for IoT what Google did for the internet: indexing M2M sensors and making them searchable for people looking to innovate with open data.
Thingful was developed by the company Umbrellium which was founded by tech entrepreneur Usman Haque, one of the brains behind Pachube, now known as Xively.
Xively is like a YouTube for M2M except rather than videos the service enables people to store and share environmental data generated by internet-connected sensors on objects, animals, devices and buildings in real time. Devices connected to the platform can also be connected with one another. Since its acquisition by LogMeIn in 2011 the service has become like a GitHub for M2M developers, providing a platform for application development using data generated by these sensors.
Thingful hopes to take this a step further. Simply put, it’s an index of all the web-connected sensors that generate publicly available data. It’s presented as a map that users can browse to find sensors around the world, which includes things like energy, seismic, radiation and weather monitors but also includes data generated on sharks, icebergs, ships, healthy, and pretty much anything currently monitored by IP-connected sensors.
“What we learned from Pachube is that there is a real appetite for bridging the physical and virtual worlds in this way,” Haque said. “One of the peak moments for the service was during the Fukashima disaster, when it became pretty much the central repository for people storing and sharing radiation data. Groups were wiring up their Geiger counters to be able to share that data in a way the government wasn’t really able to.”
Though there are similar platforms today, Pachube was one of the first data infrastructures for the Internet of Things well before the tech industry embraced the buzzword. Now almost every tech firm is jumping on to the Internet of Things phenomenon, with diverse companies – like IBM, Cisco, T-Mobile and Heroku (Salesforce) – developing platforms designed to handle or metabolise sensor-generated data, which is only growing in volume.
But these platforms can be difficult to integrate with one another if they are not linked on the same network or share the same data infrastructure.
“The problem is nobody knows where all of that data is, or how they can be connected to other devices,” Haque said. “If your device is on Xively then it can only communicate with other devices on Xively, and even though many of the data infrastructures out there do have horizontality – they can support weather stations as well as radiation and soil monitors and the like – the fact is that if you’re on a different network you won’t even know there’s a pollution sensor right next door to you because it’s communicating with a different data infrastructure.”
The service also tries to facilitate innovation around open data by suggesting relevant sensors based on the geos and applications users define when they sign up, and lets users link their own sensors with the service to make them discoverable for others.
“Data infrastructures today are very good at handling data but they aren’t necessarily very good at handling the conversations people need to have around that data,” Haque said. “Say you find an air quality sensor near you that measures something you’re interested in, the questions quickly become: Who else is interested in that? Who else is watching this air quality monitor? Can we find out whether there are other air quality monitors in the vicinity, which may be on a different network but which could be included in building something really useful?”
Thingful’s launch is an interesting development in the open data movement more broadly, a fledging movement largely defined by organisations increasingly opening up their data sets (particularly governments) for others to innovate on top of. If it catches on the index could encourage consumers and organisations to make more data publicly available, stimulate interesting mashups with other open data sets or convince researchers to link their own sensors up to the index (users can also “claim” their own sensors on the service).
Haque said that the business model is still being decided – it first wants to test if appetite for the service is as strong as anticipated, but suggested the next logical step would be to speak with the big connected device manufacturers and leverage the visibility to developers that such an index could give them.
“People do want to be able to share their data, and they want to be able to talk about their data. If we make it easy to find that data, we can provide an avenue to structure more meaningful conversations around it,” Haque said.