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The Fundamental Role of Public Institutions in the Internet of Things

By Abhi Nemani, Civic Innovator-in-Residence at GovDelivery (Originally posted on Govloop)

Whether we like it or not, the Internet of Things is becoming a reality. A McKinsey study estimates that the economic impact of IoT will be over $6 trillion in 2025. From selling consumers devices to help them track their fitness to building in smart sensors in their retail stores, the private sector is already actively building the internet of things and leveraging it to optimize their businesses.

Our question: What role do we see government playing in this new arena?

What’s been made clear in GovLoop’s recent guide is that governments are starting to move from the sidelines into the Internet of Things arena. Current examples range from improving safety on the road to enhancing awareness in the home. Indeed, there is much more to explore. Take code enforcement as an example. On the service delivery side, could we change the way code enforcement is managed through sensors detecting problems early and often, making it easier for rehabilitation and care? Or on the efficiency side, could we help prioritize needs and responses using data that we never had before?

Beyond these optimizations, though, lies a deeper, more fundamental role that the Internet of Things could play in our public institutions. Could we make them, and the policies they enact, more data-driven? The Autobahn in Germany changes its speed limit based on the traffic patterns and volume. It is responsive to reality. As sensors begin to generate more data about the jurisdictions we govern, such opportunities will only grow. Imagine changing a law or policy from on-the-ground data on how it is working? Imagine changing the nature of a law as quickly as the Autobahn changes its limits.

Tim O’Reilly calls this notion “Algorithmic Regulation.” I consider it data-driven policy, and no matter the term, it’s not so far off. In Boston, for instance, they replaced their antiquated, paper-based school placement process with a dynamic algorithm, better matching all the characteristics a parent may consider — walkability, safety, etc. — with available schools for their kids. Now consider building in real-time data from the Internet of Things into systems such as this. Properly managed, the Internet of Things could enable an era of data-driven policy.

Properly managed,” though, is an important caveat. The privacy and security considerations attached to the Internet of Things are real, difficult, and vitally important. Indeed, even without government’s use of this new technology, our public institutions will be called into the debate. We must consider: what are the regulations of private sector companies using these sensors? Ideas have been proposed ranging from an IoT “Bill of Rights” to a full-out ban. And that’s just for private actors. The debate becomes more complicated when we consider the public sector itself using these tools.

This too, though, strikes me as an opportunity for leadership. We can shape, inform, and push that debate, with a fervent commitment to the public good. Once we accept that the IoT is an inevitability — that consumer service providers will start to instrument the physical world with sensors — there is a compelling advantage to government charting this course along with them. Those institutions — private ones — don’t have robust public feedback mechanisms, and are not beholden to the popular will. Our governments are. When they push ahead into this new technological territory, it gives us all a chance to deliberate together around how are rights should be respected and regulated; a precedent hopefully for private sector actors.

We consider our governments, particularly those at the state and local level, to be our laboratories of democracy. The emergence of the Internet of Things, its opportunities and attendant challenges, may be an ideal moment for us all to run more tests — on how it could work, and how it should be regulated — to learn more together about how our democracy can and should work in the 21st century.

Read the full Internet of Things guide here.