The City of Burnaby’s CIO offers an Internet of Things reality check

To say Shari Wallace was trash-talking the Internet of Things would not be entirely accurate, but she certainly demonstrated an interesting use case for sensor-based information.

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Shari Wallace, CIO, City of Burnaby

Speaking at a recent webinar co-hosted by the CIO Association of Canada and IDC Canada, the CIO for the City of Burnaby, B.C. explained that in her municipality, there are fines for picking up contaminated garbage bins. Once garbage day is over, however, it’s not always easy to figure out which bin was contaminated. With RFID tags on the bins and cameras on the trucks, however, the city is able to gather such information and, if need be, bill back those with the contaminated trash.

Wallace admitted that while this might not represent a true example of the Internet of Things in action, it could be the first stage of thinking through ways organizations can better use connectivity between devices to create value.

“What we’d like to get to is really to start thinking of these sensors more out of the optimization of the business process to how we can do things better as a city,” she said. This could include smarter traffic flows, remote proactive information before infrastructure fails, or being able to email citizens or send out tweets about something important happening in their area.

Other use-case scenarios for sensor-based technologies today is on the City of Burnaby’s pump stations, which Wallace said are used to remotely monitor things like pressure flow and depth. “What really interests me is the education piece: if your water usage has gone up for 20 percent, for example, this is what it means for our reservoir,” she said. “Some of these things we’re doing were not called the Internet of Things. They were just things good cities did.”

Besides reducing costs and increasing revenues, Wallace said the Internet of Things also opens up the potential to share more information with citizens and engage them in a dialogue that wasn’t possible otherwise. On the flip side, she pointed out that privacy, big data challenges and shadow IT all represent risks that will need to be carefully thought through.

“If we collect route optimization for garbage management, we can’t then take that data then use it for performance management on an employee. There would have to be union negotiations, with people constantly kept informed,” she said by way of example.

In cities particularly, Wallace said work has been carried out on a departmental basis, which means data hasn’t been collected in any central day. Big data, in this case, could pose big challenges. And because IT hasn’t traditionally been involved in certain purchasing decisions, some of the security or storage implications might get overlooked unless CIOs can partner with departments more effectively, she said.

The CIOCAN/IDC Canada Webinar is worth listening to in its entirety, where other panelists explore what the future of the Internet of Things may holds. Wallace said from her perspective, there are still many more questions than answers, and it may be a matter of proving a quick payback in order to justify the investments required.

“Six hundred million to spend on the Internet of Things and infrastructure would be nice,” she said, “but it’s not in our budget.”

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