The worldwide health crisis caused by Covid-19 has alerted administrations and the population to some risks that, although not anything new, had seemed forgotten. A long period without global pandemics and with major health, social and technological advances, seemed to have immunized citizens, believing that something like this could never happen anymore, at least, not in the “first world”.
However, this pandemic is occurring without differentiation. What is more, just like the events of the 11th September 2001, when the attacks on New York´s Twin Towers caused a before and after in the way of managing airport security, everything suggests that Covid-19 will considerably change the way in which we interact in public places.
The questions that arise are: How can you keep the circumstances in which people interact in these public places under control? How can you maintain control of each and every one of the environmental parameters, the body temperature of individuals, humidity, the level of pathogens, air quality, CO2 levels, the room capacity of commercial premises, …? Moreover, in the case of being able to do so, how is it possible to convert these measures into risk indicators along with the appropriate speed to take action? How can we, at the same time, preserve the freedom and anonymity of individuals? as well as handling such a large amount of information safely …?
There are many questions, which, at this moment in time, seem to have no answers. However, the possibilities of carrying it out have a clear solution from a technological point of view and we shall address them in this article, analysing many of the aspects that are immersed in this social discussion and of the organizations that are competent in health matters.
Main Technologies: Internet of Things, Big Data and Blockchain
The common denominator to the answer to this problem from a technological point of view is already in its maturity phase and does not respond to a single solution but rather to the union of several. Moreover, it is mainly around this triangle that a difference in most fields of industry is being made: Internet of Things, Big Data and Blockchain.
Under the acronym Internet of Things (IoT, Internet of Things in English) a technology with different layers in its architecture is called that allows for addressing the properties of physical elements (things), which can be spaces, vehicles, utensils, tools, even clothing or the people themselves…. that allows us to collect interesting information about each of the elements in which we are interested, mix all that information at the same point (colloquially, we say “the cloud”), process it and obtain a first analysis of all the data available to them homogeneously and comparably.
IoT as connectivity enabler
The fact that the measurement of millions of parameters of hundreds of thousands of elements at the same time generates a large volume of information poses the first challenge to IoT.
Indeed, think for a moment about the wide variety of items that can be measured. Let’s put practical cases of interest for what concerns us online with the introduction of this article. Let’s think about measuring the number of people who access a certain place, also the level of activity that occurs within them, or the capacity through the use of automated counters; Let’s also think about the measurement of the body temperature of these individuals, the air quality in the premises, air currents, temperature and humidity and so on.
All these sensors have a varied offer on the market, but each one of them uses a form of measurement, and protocols that do not usually coincide among manufacturers.
In addition, they allow being connected through some communication network, with cable or via Wifi or 3G mobile communication. Some sites will have the problem of having limited connectivity. The tech industry already has answers to connect devices in most of these cases.
The work of IoT technology in this first layer will be to enable communication with each and every one of these measurement devices and keep this connection managed.
This means that you not only have to be in charge of receiving what the device sends you, but also of keeping information regarding the status of the device and the communication line to be able to detect faults at any time.
Many times, devices in the same place concentrate their communication channel through an intermediate element, which mediates between all of them with the cloud. It is referred to as “Gateway”. This Gateway is an important element, also it assumes certain IoT roles in a decentralized way, so that it partially processes the information from the measurement devices, to concentrate all this information and also be the unique point that talks to the platform.
Millions of data per second
Another important factor that the IoT must assume to respond properly, is the ability to collect millions of data per second. If a solution of this type is implemented, it should be possible to apply it to the measurement of thousands of locations, municipal buildings, even being extended to shopping centres, galleries, showrooms, and so forth.
This requires a response in terms of infrastructure resources, that is, the backbone, where the platform is located, must be large enough to receive that data. On the other hand, the processing capacity, that is, the resources of the servers must be dimensioned according to such a volume of information; And finally, the storage capacity, in order to save all the information that is received, must be adequate.
But this gigantic dimensioning has to have a sustainable response, that is, adequate in a flexible way, according to growing needs, they cannot be oversized because it would be an expense that is difficult to justify and unaffordable.
The answer to all these needs is found within two elements:
- The cloud (Cloud) is a scalable modular infrastructure “in hot “, that is to say, in which it is possible to be assigning (or removing) resources according to the needs of the users in a transparent way. Being normally an infrastructure of shared resources, the different services are taking only what they need, with which the cost of the resources to support our service are variable, not fixed.
- The architecture of the IoT platform must be “scalable”. In other words, it must have been designed in such a way that it can request and use more infrastructure resources (servers, disk, bandwidth) as more elements are incorporated so that it in line with growing needs.
Abstraction, simplicity and homogenization
The great complexity of hundreds of thousands of measuring devices, each with its connections and delivering data of various kinds, possibly with different units and scales of measurement, requires that there to be a “moderator” to put this data in order, simplifying the work of any user who is willing to deal with them.
That is why, at this point, the work of the IoT in its “second layer”, once it has ensured connectivity with devices, is to abstract all the complexity of the device, its sensors and the communication elements in the same item that represents that measurement point. Let’s say that the IoT platform “baptizes” the whole set (sensor + device + communication line) with the same unique name and is responsible for arranging each of the aspects of all its elements in a single list of parameters that the user may know.
In addition, since there will be different ways of measuring, for example, the temperature of premises, this “second layer” must be in charge of homogenizing this data. It should not matter that a sensor measures degrees Celsius and other data as Fahrenheit, but we can decide how we want to read them, in the same unit. And, likewise, it will occur with the number of decimals with which the data is delivered to us or any other aspect that requires homogeneity.
Another important aspect to consider in a solution of this type is security. The term security colloquially houses different types of concepts that we can briefly discuss.
To offer a solution with guarantees, it must be taken into account that the infrastructure that supports is secure, in the sense that it has all the necessary protection measures so that it is not violated by third parties accessing the information.
Another aspect is security in terms of availability. It is necessary to have sufficient guarantees so that the infrastructure does not fail, and if it does, it is capable of using backup means so that this failure is transparent to users.
Furthermore, regarding the communication of the platform with the devices, it is necessary to ensure that the data is not “clear”. For this reason, the IoT platform must use, for example, digital certificates that will allow encrypting this traveling information. This is especially important when communication is from the platform to the device in order to execute a certain order. If there is no secure communication, a malicious user could access the device to falsify data or in the worst case, cause undesired behaviour.
Homologation and certification of measures
An important aspect at the time of using information measured by electronic devices and, above all, in order to consider them as “certified” measurements in order to reach a certain decision, is that both the devices and the entire chain of elements that participate in the availability of these data are approved.
Let us suppose the case of a public administration that has regulations to measure the capacity of public premises and that would sanction the corresponding entity if said capacity is not kept below the maximum allowed.
To be able to guarantee and give legal validity to the measures carried out, so that they can be used in the corresponding sanctioning file, it would be necessary for an independent body to have tested and approved these devices and elements.
The most similar case we have is when we receive a traffic sanction, where the sanction is accompanied by the corresponding radar certificate (the device) that has captured the vehicle and certifies the speed of the vehicle.
The technological solution to this need comes as a glove from Blockchain. This technology allows a network of interconnected servers around the world to guarantee the veracity of certain information, for example, the approval of a device. Blockchain guarantees that this approval, issued by the independent entity, is unalterable. In order to make a report, the sensors and devices that participated in the measure would be identified and the Blockchain Network would be consulted to see if their approval is found to be in force.
Situation detection and Alerts
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve surely thought about the possibility that so much information coming from hundreds of thousands of devices from thousands of places is useless, since it would be impossible to analyse all the data one by one.
And you may be right in thinking so. The information that arrives will only be useful if the adequate means are available to identify the important situations and to be able to provide a summary of what is happening.
In the case at hand, if we are worrying about measuring the compliance of a certain public space in terms of environmental quality conditions and the influx of the public, surely, we have in mind certain rules that must be followed. For example, there cannot be more than 100 people at the same time. However, we also want to know if one of the people who accessed the space has exceeded the normal body temperature. Or, also, if the CO2 level is too high. Let’s also imagine, a complex rule, for instance, that depending on the room temperature, we could vary the maximum level of people who can access these premises with sanitary guarantees.
We had already discussed the “first two layers” of the IoT platform that allowed us to enable connectivity with measurement devices and, in turn, homogenize the data.
In order to carry out this work, the IoT platform has a “third layer” that is a rule engine, accessible to the administrator user. In this way, for each of the parameters or sets of them, already homogenized, you will determine under which levels you want a warning to be produced and presented, for example, in a panel on the screen. The rule engine is analyses and correlates the data that arrives to detect these situations.
In this way, even though thousands of spaces are being managed at the same time, we will only have highlighted those situations on which it is necessary to act or analyse the information in more, accessing the specific measures and their history to know their evolutions.
Integration with external systems
It is surely believed that inside any self-respecting administration or organization that already has computer systems where information about the different entities is stored (in this case, the public places where we have proposed to monitor compliance with sanitary regulations), will it be necessary to replicate, once more, all the information in order to generate reports?
The answer is no, as the IoT platform must be able to easily integrate with these external systems. In this way, if there is, for example, a system in charge of launching the sanctioning files, it will be enough to integrate it using a unique identifier of said entity, to receive the event of non-compliance and to consult the measures that have caused the non-compliance.
This integration feature should be offered openly through standard and documented APIs, easily consumable by developers of computer systems.
Statistical analysis, trends and predictions
Another aspect that seems essential today to maintain a controlled situation is the use of advanced means of processing large volumes of information so that it is possible to apply algorithms that offer us conclusions about what has happened in the past and, above all, and more interestingly, what could happen in the future.
This advanced analysis of information is commonly known as Big Data. In reality, Big Data has two great technological challenges: data acquisition and storage on the one hand, and analysis on the other. Normally the acquisition part is ignored, (although as we have already seen, it is not trivial) and the “analytics” part is assumed as Big Data.
That is why IoT and Big Data are great allies. Many times, conclusions are used and published under the Big Data label, when outdated, incomplete, or unreliable source data has been used.
Also, the characteristic of “real-time” processing is usually erroneously attributed to Big Data, that is, that reports are built according to the arrival of data, something that is less common and, in most cases, practically impossible. Conclusions using Big Data management are usually carried out by data scientists who create the appropriate models for each case and it takes some time to process them before any valid conclusion can be inferred.
Report publishing and sharing dashboards
And now we have reached the “last layer” of the IoT solution. All the information that we have managed to collect, as well as the necessary functions for the operational maintenance of the infrastructure, fault detection, etc., need a user interface.
The IoT platform will allow us to access a web interface (or a mobile application) so that we can have a series of sections to view the information and interact with the infrastructure and the other applications involved. Here we shall identify some standard functions at this level.
The dashboards allow us to access lots of information and graphic representation of the measurements obtained.
A first dashboard will allow us to access the inventory of all the installed devices that are being measured. Through a filter control, we can access those that meet certain conditions and we can search for a specific element.
In addition, we can easily identify those devices that we want to highlight, such as devices that are inactive and, therefore, are not doing their job. In this way, we can initiate maintenance orders.
Other dashboards may be oriented, for example, to the graphic representation of the behaviour of a set of elements, for example, the evolution of the risk of contamination by zones of a specific city.
Other types of dashboards can present, for example, historical reports of the number of regulatory breaches that have occurred in the last month.
The IoT platform will offer us possibilities to create reports and dashboards to our liking so that an enormous volume of information is digestible through summaries and aggregated tables, that allow us to go from the general to the particular.
Operation on devices
On the other hand, in the majority of cases, the measurement devices offer operating capabilities. Communication with the IoT platform is bi-directional.
A device that offers the possibility of being restarted remotely, can be operated from the IoT platform web interface to perform this restart, for example, in case it does not behave as it should. Another case may be updating the firmware of the device. In this way, remote action for maintenance is facilitated without the need for a technician to be called out.
Work and maintenance orders
The detection of a certain situation may require the action of external elements. In order to open an action, the IoT platform offers the opening of “tickets” or work orders in an integrated way, which include contextual information about the detected problem and can be communicated to external tools or to the recipients of email addresses or telephones.
The control of the states of a ticket will allow us to know if the problem was solved /resolved and to have measures available on the resolution times.
Different users and permissions for access to information
Access to all the functions that have been previously discussed must be regulated in terms of access permission for different users.
On the one hand, not all users must access all the functions and views that the solution offers. The technical profiles should access the inventory part but, surely, they should not access the health risk reports. Similarly, medical profile users should not be able to access the device’s operating functions.
On the other hand, it is necessary to maintain a hierarchical distribution of access to different information areas. Suppose there are several agencies per district in a city, which are responsible for overseeing the public premises of each of these districts and a general agency that has access to all districts. This ability to limit access to different groups of entities and managed devices is called “multi-tenancy” in software slang and is another key to the IoT platform to successfully implement this solution.
The implementation of sanitary control measures in places of the mass concurrence of people and the measurement of risk based on the various parameters considered by the health authorities can currently be supported by technologies such as IoT, Big Data and Blockchain.
There are solutions on the market such as OpenGate from the Spanish company Amplía Soluciones SL, with more than 18 years of experience, capable of responding rapidly and efficiently to all the challenges demanded in a solution of this type and accompanying the client throughout the entire advisory process and implementation.
For more information, visit https://www.amplia-iiot.com
Author: Gregorio Barrero
Head of Consulting at amplía)))