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As dusk falls, the lights in my flat start to come on, with those in the darkest rooms triggered first. When I walk into my bedroom, one of the lamps illuminates. At sunset, the garden light glows. If I get up during the night, my kitchen lights come on — but low, at 10 per cent of their full brightness, giving just enough light to save me from falling over the cat. They switch themselves off again once I have got back into bed.
My smart-home set-up is minimalist by some people’s standards: the central heating is not hooked up to it, nor is the burglar alarm, although I can turn on the kettle from the sofa. But even this arrangement collects plentiful data about me: the front and back door sensors record when I enter and leave the house, and the app tracks the energy use of every device to which it is connected — which is most, though not all, of my lights.
I have also installed a home-made tweeting cat flap (@daphneflap), which is operated by a bit of Python code knocked up by a friend. It takes a photo of the cat going in and out and posts a tweet singing her praises, but even that collects a fair bit of data about her. I used to think she slept on the bed all night, until the cat flap revealed that she sneaks in and out several times while I am asleep. The next step will be to capture weather and day/night parameters, then correlate them with her comings and goings.
My smart-home kit is from Fibaro and the tweeting cat flap is just a bit of fun with a Raspberry Pi computer, but there are many other web-connected domestic equipment offerings, from smart locks that work with your phone to let in your cleaner while excluding your mother, to the mattress cover that claims it will warm your bed, learn your sleeping patterns and “intelligently wake you up”.
And, of course, there are smart fridges, which at least one study expects to become fixtures in homes of the future. Smart fridges, so the sales pitches go, will keep track of what is stored in them (including that ancient slab of cheddar that never seems to go off), manage your online grocery order and suggest a recipe for you to whip up for supper.
Data collected by the devices that make up the internet of things are of enormous interest and value to organisations that want to sell you stuff. But what if you too could benefit from their use of your data?
“All the data we leave behind us is owned by those who collect it,” says Daniel Knight, technical director of Fibaro UK. “We don’t have visibility on the data we give up to Google and Facebook. People are very wary of data collection methods.”
As well as being technical lead on Fibaro’s smart-home kit, Knight wears another hat. He is working with industry partners such as Dyson, Bosch, Accenture, GlaxoSmithKline and with universities, including Nottingham, Warwick, Cambridge and Surrey, on the £1.2m Hub-of-All-Things project, known as the Hat project for short.
The project aims to create an open-source personal digital repository that will both record an individual’s data and make them available to business in return for benefits in kind.
The data will (probably) be stored on a device in the home. Fibaro’s network hub, which controls the lighting, heating and sensors in my flat can serve as a Hat device. Then, goes the thinking, the owner of those data can trade them like currency for future products and services.
Knight points to fast-moving consumer goods, where manufacturers and marketers would love to get their hands on granular data about how their products are used. “There are some crazy prototypes,” he says. “One is a device that weighs your toilet roll and so tracks your use of it.”
Beta Hat devices are out with a handful of testers, although the loo-roll device has struggled to find acceptance, says Knight. “One of our tester’s daughters is not comfortable about using that loo,” he grimaces. However, other products, such as a connected make-up box that measures how much everyday versus party make-up its owner wears, could produce data useful to beauty industry manufacturers.
It is early days for the Hat project, which has more work to do, not least on security. “We’ve got Intel and McAfee on board, which are looking at how the data could be protected, sorted and encrypted,” says Knight. “It is possible that we could use a cloud provider, rather than storing the data on a device in the home, but even so, the data would still belong to you.”
Once the practicalities are hammered out, what will consumers get in exchange for their data? Knight points out that at present, “we just accept what we are given in return — for example, an email account”.
The Hat project aims to shift that power. “We hope to make people very aware of what they are generating, which will help put a monetary value on it,” says Knight. “Right now, it is whatever Google or whoever wants to give you in return; there’s no option to pay in money instead.”
If the Hat project’s model of data as a form of currency comes to pass, it will represent a turning point for businesses that have so far been helping themselves.
The smart home, instead of being a bit creepy, could in future become a place where consumers hold the greatest power.
Short cuts: apps to smooth your progress
Android, iOS, Windows Phone, free (iOS app limited; pro version £1.49)
Exchanging files between devices should not be hard and there are any number of apps around that claim to shuffle items between your phone and your laptop without grief. I have tried many and still often end up emailing the document to myself in exasperation. One of the better ones is Dukto, which is available for most platforms — Android, iOS, Windows Phone, PC, Mac and Linux. BlackBerry users are out of luck.
It worked flawlessly when exchanging files between my PC and mobile devices, but sending a picture from one device to another was less successful — my iPad and Kindle Fire HDX sent files back and forth, but my Windows phone steadfastly refused to recognise either tablet. iOS users should shell out £1.49 for the pro version, as the free version flashes up adverts at every turn.
Keyboard for Excel
Android, tablet only, free
If you spend a lot of time grappling with spreadsheets, this app might make your life a little easier. It is a keyboard for use with Excel and a project that emerged from Microsoft Garage, the technology company’s experimental laboratory. The keyboard gives you a numeric pad to the right of the qwerty keyboard, while the tab key lets you move between cells, making data entry less painful.
The app is not perfect — it does not support swipe-motion gesture-typing, for example, and reviewers have complained that it is prone to glitches. Another drawback is that it is only available for Android tablets.
That said, Microsoft does warn on the app’s Google Play listing that Keyboard is “experimental”, so hopefully those rough edges will be smoothed out.
iOS, free (in-app purchases)
This is a nice idea for travellers who want to minimise the time they spend at the airport. It is a crowdsourced guide to how long you can expect to wait in security queues — information that you can share via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or Instagram.
Call up your airport (it recognises the three-letter IATA codes), tell it which terminal you are in and which gate you are heading for and, in theory, it tells you how long the queues will be. In return, you add information about the length of queues in which you are standing.
In practice the interface is a bit confusing and annoyingly it tells you to give it a five-star rating in iTunes before you can start using it. Even more annoyingly, pop-ups offer you rewards such as a free soft drink “because you’re awesome”. A good idea marred by poor execution.
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