You can find almost anything online these days including the vital statistics of cows, writes Duncan Jefferies in last week's Guardian. A Dutch company called Sparked has created a sensor implant that can measure a cow's vital signs, with the data transmitted to a server for access by farmers, who can instantly determine the health of the herd and respond when an animal is sick or pregnant. The animals' movements, eating habits and response to environmental factors can also be monitored.
It may sound like the stuff of science fiction but these cyber cows are at the forefront of the evolution of the internet. In future, almost anything could be connected to the web via a sensor, radio frequency identification tag or IP address, forming an "Internet of Things" (IoT) that will make today's online world seem archaic in comparison. Fridges, buses and buildings will be able to share data and adapt to suit our needs. In fact, Cisco estimates that the number of "things" connected to the internet has already surpassed the number of people on earth.
A lack of clear standards and security issues have so far kept the IoT largely in the realm of speculative. But Duncan Wilson, associate director at Arup Foresight + Innovation, says this is beginning to change. "It's moving out of the research labs now and into prototypes in the field".
The IoT is linked to a number of other emerging ideas, such as smart cities, pervasive sensing and machine-to-machine communication – all of which are being tentatively explored by businesses and government. Regardless of what name it is given, this merger of the physical and virtual worlds could allow local authorities to deliver much more efficient services, reducing waste and unlocking reams of useful data: think water mains loaded with clusters of sensors that can alert engineers to leaks or blockages, or lampposts that can detect light levels and save energy by turning themselves off. Sensors could even be used to check the effectiveness of waste removal and recycling services, or help the police locate stolen goods.
Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and shadow minister for business, innovation and skills, recently called on the government to support the growth of the IoT, saying: "I want to live in a world where the traffic lights on the Tyne bridge going into Newcastle can respond to traffic conditions on other bridges in the city so that we avoid gridlock. I would like to know exactly when the number 10 bus will get to the bottom of Kenton lane."
Ultimately, sensors and vehicles across the entire transport infrastructure could be connected to deliver a seamless service. "You can coordinate people's journeys in a much better way if the information on the buses can be mixed with information on the trains and the traffic flow," says Nick Appleyard, head of digital at the Technology Strategy Board. "But in order to do that you need to be able to pull all of those data flows together."
The TSB has established a special interest group of companies and organisations, which will help shape a £5m programme aimed at promoting wider participation in the IoT. Funding competitions will follow, with the board investing in short term feasibility studies, research and development projects and pilots. The Digital City Exchange research programme, funded with a £5.9m grant from Research Councils UK, is also investigating how connected data and apps can transform our cities – for example by allowing people to see how full a train is before they leave for the station.
Bristol city council, in partnership with other European public sector organisations and several technology companies, is currently participating in a project called 3e-Houses which will measure the impact of installing smart metering products into social housing. "At the moment the most complex interaction [with the grid] is just flicking a switch on and off – that's not the model that we're now used to in terms of how we interact with networks in the world," says Kevin O'Malley, senior programme manager at Connecting Bristol, the council's digital partnership project.
Other systems could be built on top of smart meters to improve health and social care. For example, the TSB is investing up to £18m over the next four years to demonstrate how smart metering and remote monitoring can support independent living for older people and those with long-term health conditions. The programme will set up at five sites across the UK, with 10,000 users at each.
"You've got smart homes technology. That's good, that's great, but actually quite a lot of it is bespoke systems: one building doesn't talk to the next building. It certainly doesn't talk to the district nurse, or the hospital – it's not integrated into those services. How can we get everybody to work together to integrate all these things so that different services can really use this technology?" says Appleyard.
This joined up approach to the IoT ultimately depends on robust standards, which will allow for much greater innovation, competition and investment. "Once you've established the standard and everyone adopts it, then you don't have to keep manually intervening to make everything work together," Appleyard adds. "There is a need for some thought leadership from people like local authorities, who can start to seed some of that coordination and cooperation."
As more data flows into local authorities it will become increasingly difficult to sort the important bits from the pointless bytes. The move to IPV6 (the latest internet protocol), will also unleash a wave of new information as more objects are connected to the web. "When you're then having to make decisions based on several different information feeds that might be coming in – which ones do you trust over others?" asks Wilson.
New partnerships will need to be formed to solve some of these issues and deliver connected services, perhaps with companies like Pachube, who provide a scalable platform that can be used to build IoT applications. But as Kortuem says, tight budgets will complicate matters. "Putting a figure on the benefits, and making the argument that some money needs to be spent to provide a better long-term service, that is just starting to happen," says Dr Gerd Kortuem, professor of computing at the faculty of mathematics computing and technology at the Open University. "But in the current economic climate it is not that easy."
To find out more about the TSB's Internet of Things Convergence competition click here.