Report: Funding, Focus Are Issues as Agencies Eye Internet of Things

A new survey from Northeastern University-Silicon Valley highlights issues public agencies may face as they contemplate Internet of Things initiatives.

by / August 4, 2017
Workers inspect an Array of Things node before its installation. Photo courtesy of the Urban Center for Computation and Data

State, county and local agencies weren’t on a Top 10 list of early adopters in a recent Internet of Things (IoT) survey, but government officials and a dean at the university behind the report identified several issues implicit to public-sector adoption of IoT, which is already changing how it operates.

The findings, released July 25 in the joint Northeastern University-Silicon Valley and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) survey about the Internet of Things, were compiled by researchers through questioning more than 500 IEEE members.

Three questions in particular illustrated where the public sector currently finds itself on the path to implementing IoT, P.K. Agarwal, Northeastern’s dean and CEO, and California’s chief technology officer from 2005-2010, told Government Technology.

First, despite obvious examples that show local agencies innovating around everything from tracking garbage to intelligent traffic control devices, public sector didn’t crack the top 10. The survey ranked the defense and military industry as the largest adopters of IoT technology, with a nearly 55 percent adoption rate, followed by security/access control at nearly 49 percent and health care at nearly 42 percent.

The reason public sector isn’t on that list is simple, Agarwal said: money.

“Military always has money. The problem with smart cities and IoT is that it’s a very capital-intensive proposition,” noting that governments, especially California, continue to be recovering from the Great Recession.

His solution? Public-private partnerships (P3s) — private financing for public ventures — which he sees as coming back “with a vengeance,” possibly within the next couple of years.

Eric Pethtel, public works director for the city of Fishers, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb where officials are working to automate and modernize the agency’s internal processes, said funding is probably the biggest issue underlying his city's quest to adopt IoT and become “smarter.”

“To do that it takes a lot of capital and sometimes that isn’t always as fast coming as you would wish. Part of kicking the can is trying to be more efficient, more effective and doing more with less,” Pethtel said.

Ann Dunkin, CIO of Santa Clara County, Calif., and former CIO of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said that federal agencies like EPA and the Department of Transportation “both have strong reasons” to get into IoT, but other agencies may not.

That said, Dunkin — who characterized her county’s efforts as “nascent” — acknowledged municipalities, especially larger ones, are finding opportunities in IoT driven by density and the kind of work they do.

“And the bigger the city, the more densely populated, the more urgency they feel to it,” Dunkin said.

Second on Agarwal's list of relevant government takeaways, nearly 38 percent of respondents said data aggregation is their biggest challenge in IoT adoption – not skill levels, second-ranked by nearly 26 percent of those surveyed, or security concerns, picked by more than 18 percent.

Agarwal’s only surprise here, he said, was that the often-taken-for-granted soft skills ranked so high. In reality, he said, points of presence will be “the single biggest technical issue” in the business of IoT and smart cities, and “there’s no cloud big enough to entertain all this data anyway.”

Samir Saini, CIO of Atlanta and one of GovTech's Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2017, said data aggregation is not an issue for the city, which recently adopted a cloud-based enterprise data platform and can ingest IoT data at scale.

Rather, Saini sees identifying high-value use cases as the top challenge to IoT deployment in cities. It’s crucial, he said, to ensure proper deployment of expensive devices that may be difficult to properly exploit.

“Clearly define your problem. Then, it’s not an IoT project. It’s a project and IoT is just one element,” Saini said.

Third, while more than half of those surveyed, or nearly 54 percent, said they were most interested in acquiring design- and integration-centered technical skills, nearly two-thirds, or roughly 59 percent, indicated communications was the career strength most relevant to IoT success. Less than 20 percent of respondents picked knowledge as the next most relevant career strength.

Agarwal said this is yet another example of IoT people “constantly being told and constantly striving to become better and better change agents” with each new wave of technology.

This time, however, he said it’s no longer about “taking some back office or something and turning it into just a little bit smarter.”

“This is an issue that’s no longer a federal issue. The president and states might throw it some money, but the action is all going to be at the local level. That’s really what I think the result of all this is,” Agarwal said.

Still, skills are key, Dunkin said, noting, “If you don’t have the skills, you’re not going to do it.” But the CIO said she would think about security concerns before aggregating data.

“The downside, the risk in the public sector of a security breach, far exceeds the potential,” Dunkin said. “In the private sector, you can say, ‘At least we made a lot of money.’”

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.