When I hear the word sensor, I usually think of a simple, dumb object that has one precise role: read a measurement at predetermined time intervals and report it to a central server. The sensor is (usually) a basic and inexpensive piece of hardware, but its value is found in numbers: collect enough data points and you can establish patterns, perform predictive analytics -- and maybe make a few dollars selling all this.
Barrier to entry is high
The trick about sensors is that not every organization can deploy sensors where they want. For example, only the highway administration is permitted to embed car-counting sensors in the asphalt of the roads. Earthquake sensors would be the same: unless you are the national geological administration, you probably won't be able to instrument the ridges of local faults. In theory, any company with enough money could go door-to-door and rent windowsill space to deploy air quality measurement sensors in cities -- but it's hardly practical. When it comes to smart energy meters, well, you have to be selling energy to consumers to put a meter in their home.
Using people as sensors
There are other ways to collect many of the data points provided by some the sensors mentioned above.
Instead of having to rely on roadway instrumentation, which varies from region to region and from road to road, navigation app Waze automatically collects its users' speed and location and relies on gamification techniques to encourage users to report road hazards, accidents, or speed traps.
If an earthquake were to happen a few miles from where you live, you would do feel it, right? In the middle of the night, it would wake you up. During the day, you would at least interrupt your routine for a few moments. If you were wearing some kind of fitness tracker or smartwatch, it would therefore pick up a movement. Right after the August 2014 South Napa Earthquake, Jawbone did some data science to measure its impact of the wearers of their Jawbone UP fitness tracker. The 3:20 am earthquake is hard to miss, waking up almost 80 percent of people who lived within 25 miles of the epicenter.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation of Parrot's Flower Power, a sensor that assesses your plants' needs and sends alerts to your smartphone. Among the parameters the device collects, temperature, moisture and sunlight are interesting. Just focus on the plants that are outdoors, and you have a wide network of meteorological sensors, paid for and deployed by your customers. (Note: I don't have insight on whether or not Parrot is using the data collected in this manner, but the point here is that they could, it would be very valuable data, and it would certainly not harm in any way their customers).
You are the key here
You are using more and more connected devices. Whether intentionally or not, you are providing more and more data points to the organizations who sell you these devices, who give or sell you the apps you run on them, and who may or may not provide a value-added service in return. It's not good or bad -- it's simply happening. You are turning into a sensor on the Internet of Things.
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