Big Picture Thinking

E-mail Melanie Martella

While I was attending the Second Annual AutoID & Sensing Event last week, I was struck anew by the ways in which the combined technologies of RFID, wireless sensor networking, and the sensors used with both could provide big-picture views of activity that are simply unobtainable by other means. Let me explain.

Consider the world of fleet management, in which a variety of technologies are used to keep track of a fleet of vehicles, monitoring their location, speed, fuel-usage, and a variety of other important indicators. Has it been possible to get this much data in real-time ever before? I'd say no.

Asset tracking provides the ability to assign a unique ID to an object, and then monitor its location and the conditions it experiences throughout its journey through the supply chain) means that companies who want to track cargo or other valuables can do so, discovering exactly where their goods are at any time.

Consider the USDA's aim to trace food in a reliable, standardized manner, from farm to food processor to aid in identifying sources of food-borne illness. I'll ignore the question of whether this is anything like a fair shake to small farmers and merely note that this entire project could not exist if we didn't already have the technology to make it happen.

Now consider the SENSEable City Lab's Trash Track project which has the laudable goal of shining some light on what happens to our trash in cities, including how and where and when we recycle. The project involved placing small tags that incorporated a motion sensor and a wireless module (first generation tags used a GSM cellular modem while second-generation tags use GPS and CDMA cell-tower trilatereration) to provide location readings. Any time the tag moved, it would send a position reading. Any time it didn't move for a while it would go into a low-power hibernation mode. So, at the inception of the product, volunteers brought in pieces of trash (the researchers had a wishlist of recyclable objects), stuck a tag on 'em and took a photo to document them. And then they threw them away and the researchers started collecting data as the various items phoned home. And let me tell you, watching Steve Miles' presentation at the event, which included a video showing the path that the various tagged pieces of trash took over the next days, weeks, months, was eye-opening to say the least. Seeing where the metal went, where the compact fluorescent bulbs went, and just the huge distances traveled by some of the items was amazing.

Fundamentally, if you want to understand what's going on in any given process, you have to find some way to gather data. The location-aware technologies that exist now can provide the sorts of big-picture overviews that have simply never been possible before. And this opens up new opportunities to design and manage the flows of things, people, and information in completely new (and hopefully better) ways.