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What We Can Learn from Them

July/August 2018

By Preeti Vasishtha

Instead of starting from the ground up, institutions can gain advantages by replicating IoT successes within higher education and other industries, says Amazon Web Services’ technology expert Sri Elaprolu.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is making a lot of industries much smarter. In the agriculture sector, for instance, farmers are collecting data about their crops and livestock in a variety of ways. When connected to the Internet, sensors in tractors let farmers access data about their crop yields, and by combining this information with advanced data analysis, farmers can get a sense for the best times to plant crops and optimize their yields, according to a Business Insider article, “Here’s How IoT Is Transforming Six Different Industries.” 

Here’s a snapshot of what other industries are doing, as described in the article:

In higher education, many institutions are adopting smart technologies in several areas, such as facilities, energy management, and even student success. IoT devices are helping campuses use data in a variety of ways, from simple tracking, such as campus shuttles, student attendance, and supplies, to more complex monitoring, such as understanding student learning patterns. (Read also “Agile.edu.”)

In an interview with Business Officer magazine, Sri Elaprolu, senior manager, Public Sector IoT Practice, Amazon Web Services (AWS), says that while there are several challenges to consider, IoT also presents a plethora of opportunities that institutions can take advantage of. 

But, as a starting point, campuses should not reinvent the wheel, says Elaprolu, who works on IoT projects with several industries such as transportation, public health, city governments, and higher education. Instead, they should look into and learn from the successes of other institutions and even industries, and take advantage of easy wins. 

Sri Elaprolu is senior manager, Public Sector IoT Practice, Amazon Web Services.

How do you define IoT at Amazon Web Services? 

Traditionally, when you think about IoT, the first things that comes to mind are sensors and devices. For us, that definition extends further to include systems that are connected and exchanging real-time information. By systems, I don’t mean two databases that talk to each other. Rather, its individual objects and things, devices, and sensors that are connected, exchange information, and take appropriate actions based on the incoming data, which could be in audio or video formats. All these types of systems that are connected and exchange information with a central system somewhere qualify as a connected solution or an IoT solution. 

For instance, the security system at your home is connected to and enabled by a number of sensors. When you activate the system, the sensors are put into an active mode and you can communicate with that security system—even if you are outside your home—through your mobile device or a Web-based interface. This is a very simplistic example of how you’re taking data and input from sensors that are sitting in your home; sending that over to a central location; and then using other mediums such as mobile, Web, and audio (such as Alexa, an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon) in accessing the current status of your home and changing security settings, if need be. 

Several smart city projects currently underway are aimed at maximizing the efficiency of city operations and services, among other things. In some ways, colleges and universities are much like small cities. With that in mind, how can they benefit from IoT? 

The statement that a large campus is nothing but a minicity is exactly where most of the conversations start. In a university setting, we are currently in discussions with campus leaders in three distinct areas related to IoT.

The first area is around facilities such as transportation, parking, building efficiency, or safety on campus streets. A number of such cases have translated very well from a city setting into a campus setting. 

The second area is student and university life. There are several student activities where sensors and real-time analytics can play a significant role and improve student life on campus. A simple example is when a student wants to reserve his favorite exercise equipment at the campus gym, an app sends a notification to him on his mobile phone as soon as the equipment is available. In this case, sensor data comes off the equipment and gets placed into a central system. Because the student’s mobile app is connected to that system, he is able to receive the notification and make reservations. Georgia Tech students use the gtlyfe app, a digital assistant that helps them stay organized and involved on campus through its scheduling and productivity features.

The third area is in the classroom setting where you’re teaching IoT to students or you’re using IoT to improve the efficiency of the teaching process. There are several examples where universities are teaching the fundamentals of IoT and getting students to do hands-on projects. 

That’s because, in the future, it’s expected that, whether you’re an IoT professional or a private citizen, IoT is going to have an impact on you, one way or the other. So, understanding the fundamentals, learning the concepts, and, in some cases, involving students in IoT-related projects is becoming more and more commonplace on campuses.

There are also a limited number of solutions where IoT is being used for simple things such as taking classroom attendance. Who’s in the classroom? How much time are students spending in the classroom? How attentive are the students? 

Several IoT challenges relate to data. How can institutions utilize such vast amounts of data to their benefit? How can they secure such data? 

One of the challenges that our customers face—whether it’s a campus, a city, or a federal agency—is limited technical resources, both in terms of people and infrastructure to make sense of the data. Diving into the data and applying real-time analytics requires expertise that institutions may or may not have on staff. 

Institutions may have collected terabytes and even petabytes of data, but for them to realistically process that is a huge problem. Most customers end up either archiving the data and not really getting any value out of them, or just discarding the information because they don’t know what else to do with it. 

What cloud services allow you to do is start making sense of that data. And, there are two ways in which AWS specifically helps. First, one of the simplest products that we have is a service called SageMaker that allows users to start using the data they already have by applying our pre-built algorithms that we bring to bear. 

Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana has an ongoing student database with about 1.7 million records. The college was dealing with wait times of 40 minutes for a single query and up to eight hours to process routine reports. It needed new ways to store and analyze data, such as actively monitoring student performance early in each semester to identify and counsel those at risk of failing. The college began using Amazon Redshift data warehouse service to perform predictive analytics and produce reports with software from Pentaho and Wolfram Mathematica. Queries can now be completed in as little as three seconds, down from 40 minutes or more in the past. Data can provide insights within seconds and detect issues such as financial aid fraud that in the past might have taken days to discern. 

Once the customers start seeing the value in processing data, the next challenge is how they should receive the data and store them cost effectively. And, also making sure that data are secure from start to finish. That’s another area where we a have number of services and capabilities, where security is at the foundation. 

For campuses, specifically, we have several white papers discussing these challenges.

What are some other issues regarding IoT that campus leaders should recognize? 

What’s relatively new to campuses is the device movement, where students come to college with several personal devices and connect to the campus network. IT staff should have a clear set of guidelines explaining what the students are and aren’t allowed to do. Often, institutions establish limited, if any, guidelines. Having student devices connected to the campus network could be a potential risk that the institution is unknowingly getting into. 

Institutions should also have processes in place for the IT staff and security teams to follow. For instance, they should be able to conduct a periodic sweep of the campus network to understand which devices are being connected and what the users are doing at any given time. 

Explain some opportunities available to campuses.

Think about all the areas mentioned earlier where you can improve operations on campus by taking real-time actions, whether they’re optimization or safety related.

One area where campuses are getting increasingly active is encouraging students to participate in IoT projects, such as getting them involved in designing guidelines that campuses should implement, hackathons, and projects for the social good. 

Institutions are getting involved with the local communities and cities for their students to jointly work on such projects and gain hands-on experience. The local community, in turn, benefits from the project by getting the campus involved. 

The Apps for Ag Hackathon is a project designed to help farmers improve soil health, curb insect infestations, and boost water efficiency through IoT technologies. We worked with many young computer science students and helped them understand the benefits of cloud computing.  

We’re seeing several collaborative efforts between the local community and an institution. One example is MetroLab Network, which is a group of more than 35 city-university partnerships that are focused on bringing data, analytics, and innovation to city governments. Its members include 41 cities, four counties, and 55 universities. 

Campus leaders should work with local cities and states, and communities, to seek projects that may be appropriate for university involvement. 

Higher education can be slow to adopt the latest technology. What advice do you have for leaders to keep up with the pace of IoT and realize its advantages? 

While it is important to have a long-term strategy and a view on where and how you want your campus to leverage and benefit from IoT, it should not slow you down from taking incremental steps and harnessing innovation today. 

Institutions should have their IT teams, students, and other campus staff get involved with smaller scale projects. What these projects do is help build skills and establish a comfort level with the technology. Once a team begins seeing some benefits by implementing these projects, you start getting a much better perspective on how you can leverage those technologies on a larger scale.

One example of a small project which can be an easy win is tackling the issue of parking, which is a problem everywhere, including campuses. This has been addressed so many times in so many settings, that there are several low-risk solutions in the market that campuses and cities can start evaluating and moving forward with. An IoT solution would allow people to reserve and pay for parking on campus ahead of time. By using transponders and in-car devices, this solution also automatically pays the parking fee when a driver pulls out of the parking spot. 

So now you’re bringing innovation on campus, getting your IT network teams comfortable with that process, and working with campus security to review how an IoT solution is going to be implemented. And best of all, you’re making the lives of your students, faculty, and campus visitors easier.

Second, avoid reinventing the wheel. There are projects such as parking operations and lighting that can be highly repetitive from campus to campus, and campus to cities, so there’s no reason why every campus has to redesign solutions from the ground up. In addition to successful projects, also learn from implementations that may have failed and how institutions moved on to adopting a more viable solution.

If there is an existing solution that has proven results behind it, and it’s cost-effective and it fits the overall scope of your requirements, try it. Leverage what’s already available and, then, focus on capabilities that don’t exist yet or are unique to your campus. Lean on the private sector when you need to take advantage of its capabilities, as well. 

Also, be ready to fail, because you’re in a cutting-edge space and the field is still developing. That’s the beauty of the commercial cloud: It enables you to experiment often and learn from your findings, without investing a great deal of time and resources. 

PREETI VASISHTHA is deputy editor, Business Officer.

 


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If there is an existing solution that has proven results behind it, and it’s cost-effective and it fits the overall scope of your requirements, try it.