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Internet of Things

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At a glance

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the global infrastructure of physical and virtual objects that are connected to each other via the internet. These objects can independently communicate with one another. Special electronic components, such as RFID chips or sensors, make this communication possible and mean that effectively any analogue object can be equipped with a digital interface. An empty fridge that automatically orders groceries, bins with installed fill level sensors or parcel tracking on the website of a logistics company are classic practical examples of the IoT.

The Internet of Things is thought to have tremendous potential, particularly in an industrial/commercial context. The digital interconnection of people, machines and products is expected to enable automated, optimised production processes under the buzz word “Industry 4.0”. But falling prices for chips and sensors, open source software and increasing internet access are also increasingly making the technology interesting for use in development cooperation. The IoT holds great opportunities for two applications in particular:

1. Crises: Prevention and resilience

Sensors and chips connected via the Internet of Things can transmit data on their environment, their location and their status at all times. This feature is particularly useful for environmental and civil protection: for example, sensors in forests can check temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide values in real time in order to provide an early warning of likely or actual forest fires. Similarly, sensors in the soil are also used to warn of earthquakes.

To fully exploit the potential of IoT technology, all relevant data of different interconnected objects can be combined and jointly evaluated. For example, ten years ago a control and command centre, which collects a vast amount of urban data, was set up in Rio de Janeiro in response to the destructive landslides in the Brazilian capital. These days, the Rio Operations Center analyses the data of over 50 city authorities as well as from private sources. They ensure greater safety in the city and enable a rapid and effective response in emergencies. Social media, news programmes and interconnected sirens are used to pass on warnings.

In addition, sensors that connect devices to the IoT infrastructure can be battery-powered. This means that their wireless data transmission is not dependent on a power grid. The power often fails in disaster situations and the conventional communication infrastructure no longer works. In this case, battery-powered IoT devices could take over limited communication services, such as the transmission of micro messages to strengthen the resilience of the emergency infrastructure in the event of a crisis.

2. Monitor development cooperation measures and increase efficiency

The Internet of Things delivers data that can be used as the basis for decisions, to control processes and to review as well as implement measures for safety and quality of life. This allows the technology to support development cooperation in areas such as the energy sector, agriculture, transport planning and in health care. An example of the latter sector is the monitoring of vaccination programmes. In developing countries, important vaccines are often lost due to mismanagement or the interruption of the cold chain. IoT trackers on vaccine vials or distribution vehicles document where and when the vaccine arrives and whether the necessary cooling was complied with (also refer to the blockchain article). Health care workers can then track the distribution and possible wastage of the vaccines on the online platform in real time.

Another typical application context is the use of IoT technology to support small farmers. Sensors can collect data on soil moisture or plant health and give farmers important information on the condition of their fields or harvests. These data are provided via smartphones and tablets and farmers can use this improved information to achieve a sustainable increase in efficiency.

Costs and proprietary systems as a challenge

While the prices for chips and sensors have fallen in the past few years, the implementation of an IoT infrastructure remains associated with (high) costs as well as the necessity of internet access. Any development cooperation should therefore closely consider the context in which IoT technology is appropriate and when an analogue, often more cost-effective solution, is preferable.

Today’s IoT infrastructure consists of a number of separate, smaller networks. Most of them are proprietary, which means that they are privately owned and are not publicly accessible. This circumstance causes problems with regard to costs, dependence and interoperability. For instance, governments run the risk of getting locked-in. In these cases, they are not able to independently manage and maintain the implemented hardware and software, meaning that they are permanently dependent on a service provider. This limits their ability to act and can lead to undesirable costs.

In addition, proprietary systems complicate the interoperability between the various networks and applications – an aspect that has a detrimental effect on innovation and continued development. This is because effective solutions are often only created when there is sufficient scope and flexibility to adapt to specific requirements. This often occurs as soon as different applications and systems are interconnected. As a result, IoT systems used as part of the development cooperation should always be based on the principles of open standards and open source.

A particular challenge – security and data protection

One of the greatest challenges for IoT systems currently involves the question of IT security. For instance, every connected device needs up-to-date and maintained software so that it does not present a security risk. But what about if one day updates are no longer developed for older devices? This will quickly turn a multitude of internet-capable devices into gateways for cybercriminals who take advantage of the resulting security gaps.

In a development cooperation context, a particular focus should therefore always be placed on how often devices can be replaced and be supplied with updated software. The use of open source solutions can once again be a key advantage, as this is often maintained and continuously developed by committed communities. Security risks are quickly detected and eliminated.

IoT devices generate a huge amount of data – after all, that is the whole point. But whenever there is a store of valuable data, there is always also the temptation for abuse, as countless scandals in the recent past have shown. Data protection therefore plays a prominent, but not always straightforward, role in the IoT segment. In Germany, for instance, this is reflected by the privacy concerns of many consumers, which keeps them from buying interconnected devices. But, even if the application context in the development cooperation appears different, sensitive personal data can occasionally also be generated, such as for health applications, which need to be protected.

Current situation

The Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is already testing IoT applications in selected projects. However, the use of the technology is currently still in its early stages. The current focus is on gaining experience and learning about the various approaches.

  • The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), together with local partners, has implemented a pilot project on intelligent irrigation: an innovative system that enables irrigation to be controlled remotely and which is based directly on the needs of the plant, which reduces water and electricity costs (photovoltaics). It automates irrigation, identifies soil parameters in real time and adapts the watering.

Digital Innovation

Local knowledge is the key to developing successful new solutions and locally adapted offerings on site. A large number of these local innovations are already using digital means to make processes more efficient or more independent.

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