IoT Without the Internet?

I recently took a trip to Northern Thailand to support a volunteer effort at a school that serves a rural hill tribe. The project was backed by three Thai startups Knit by Jib, Drvr and Bangkok Bike Finder. All outstanding startups that value the idea of doing social good and believe that education is a fundamental necessity.village back of truck

This school itself isn’t
to easy to get to. After taking an overnight train from Bangkok to Chaingmai we still had two days of travel ahead, including the last leg which was a three h
our drive in a 4×4 truck through mountain roads and paths.

While I was visiting this village I was wondering how could I help this school through my specific set of knowledge and capabilities with the Internet of Things, there was just one issue. The village the school serves is completely off the grid, no power, no Internet and just to get a mobile signal you have to travel about 15km. How do you get the benefit of the IoT without actually having Internet, or power for that matter?

Well the power issues is fairly easy to address, this is Thailand after all and sun is one thing we have in abundance. There are a number of low power devices that can run via solar power and can be contained in a weatherproof case of some kind.

Village 1Of course there are solution in place for such lacks of connectivity, a device can cache data and then send it back up to the cloud later for analysis. Or a mobile device can be used to query sensors once they are in range to get real time data.Village kids

So, the tech solutions are there, now just finding out how IoT can help this school was the key. I spent a lot of time exploring the area around the school and talking with the teacher to assess what the school needs to help provide a better learning environment for the community they serve.

Water is really the primary concern for the school at this point. They can only get fresh water about five months out of the year. Water, being sort of essential for life and all, clearly moves to the top of the list. Knit by Jib is working on a project now that will help extend how high up on the stream the schools water is sourced from; which should allow them to get clean, fresh water year round.

Just because the IoT can’t physically bring the water to the school doesn’t mean it won’t have a role to play. I can envision sensors used for the water tanks at the school to measure level, letting the teacher know when they need to turn the valves on to fill the tanks, or even possibly some sensors to check water quality, I still have some more research to do on this front.

Another issues that the teachers face is nutrition, as the diet of the locals is very limited. It is often the case that the only balanced meal the students get each day is prepared by the teachers at school. To this end the teachers are currently running a school garden where they grow the village_rainbowfood that is used in some of the students meals. An automated watering system linked to a soil moisture sensor seems to be a simple project that can be put together to help out in this regard. Of course because there is no electricity in this village the system would have to be solar powered so it could operate consistently, and then that whole system would need to be maintained. All are interesting challenges.

Ultimately it comes down to how much benefit can this school get from technology projects like this. Just installing them could help a little bit, but I am unsure how much benefit it would really be. I have been thinking that the biggest help these projects could accomplish would be as a learning experience for the children and maybe provide some inspiration along the way. The point of these projects and outreach is to benefits the school in its mission to provide quality education to this remote, rural area. I have a lot more thought to put into this before I can decide what, if any benefit can be offered through technology. I will be sure to post more here as I work through ideas.

Why Wearable Tech Didn’t Work For Me

About a year ago I started to use a piece of wearable tech to track my activity levels. I picked up a Jawbone up from a shop in Bangkok and with that my wearable journey began. Like any new relationship things started off great, I unboxed and charged my Jawbone and would wear it every day. And I stuck with the everyday use for about 3 months, until it stopped working.

Jawbone Up

My Up Jawbone is on the shelf…

Once the Jawbone stopped working I reached out to the company via twitter and they were all over my request for a replacement. They shipped one too me here in Thailand, no questions asked. Once it arrived in the mail I started to wear the Up again, and things were going well, until it started to irritate my skin while jogging. I tried a few lotions and some other possible solutions, but the more I wore the device the worst it got.

So, just before the six-month mark I fell into the category that most wearable tech users do, and that is I stopped using, and at right around the same time. Even though I was committed to using it continuously when I got it, and I did find real value in the way it allowed me to track my activity and the gamification of my data against my friends who have the device that wasn’t enough to motivate me to keep using it. A few small issues lead to me shelving the device once and for all.

I still wanted to track my activity levels as I spend most of my time at a desk, or table, or some other place where I can work on my laptop or tablet; either coding, writing or reading. Since I was no longer hot on the idea of an activity tracker as a wearable I had to figure out how to approach it.

Pacer app

Pacer allows me to keep track of my activity without an extra device!

The one item I always have on me is my smartphone, which was the gateway device for the Jawbone anyway. In reality, my iPhone has all the sensors it needed to do the job of the Up, I just needed to find an app that would fit the need and that provided me a good user experience. After much researching and some trial and error I ended up going with an app called Pacer. I just let it run in the background on my phone and it takes advantage of all the sensors in my phone to keep track of my activity level for me and allows me to look at trends and analyze my activity. It also allows me to create groups of friends and we can track our progress against each other and having fun with it.

Ultimately this experience reinforced the idea that single use wearables will have a very short market life. The pervasiveness of smartphones that are packed with sensors and have a massive library of apps available will be their demise. Now my wrist is no longer irritated and I still have all the benefits of the wearable without the hassle of having to put something on every day.