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Case Studies (224)

A Quick History of the Internet of Things

How Did We Create Such a Rich Market?

Want to know how the "Internet of Things" became a thing at all? To do so, you must look back to the start: the birth of networking and the explosion of consumer technology.

The internet isn’t that old, so far as the world wide web. In 1974, the structure we know and love today was born. Just ten years later. that the first domain name system was introduced, allowing for easier networking. The first website actually came online in 1991. The "internet," as a network of connected devices in consumer homes, was only proposed just a scant two years before that, yet it came crashing into our mainstream world. 

In no time the internet took over. By 1995, multiple websites and systems came online. I remember watching crude bulletin board systems arise, then quickly be replaced by Geocities pages and early websites. The first business webpages actually came in the form of reproduced fliers, essentially scanned and put online to promote companies. All of these new ideas came from the imaginings of others that had taken place decades earlier.

The term “internet of things” or “IoT” is also not a new one. You can find references to it as far back as the idea of the Internet itself, but if you survey an IoT team, it is more than likely that few know this. The history, or at least the ideology, goes back a great deal further than most people know. This, of course, has ramifications on the marketplace, both in how older technology companies approach the space and how traditional product introduction processes operate.

Thinkers across history could be responsible for coining the term, depending on the story you read. Some point to Tesla and Edison as the first to lead connected objects. Others look at the literal applications by Tim Berners Lee and Mark Weiser, the latter of which famously created a water fountain synced to the activities of the NYSE. The founders of Nest could also make the list, one of the first truly non-computer connected objects.

Even the idealism and futurism of the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the Internet of Things thinking. Imagine a classic 60s technology ad, displaying the "home of the future." Everything is connected and communicating, and people are never out of reach of their day-to-day technology.

Then, of course, is Kevin Ashton, a man who comes up when you Google "who came up with the Internet of Things." Kevin is a frequent thinker in the space who is corrected attributed to a verifiable creation of the term, "Internet of Things." Like most corporate lingo, the origin is likely impossible to pin down, but the idea that the term was born in a boardroom is not surprising. The leaders who would go on to actually take these objects to market in the 90s included "traditional" players like IBM and Sony.

The story is that, no matter what route you pick to decipher the past, the rise of Internet of Things thinking is ubiquitous. From the moment "networking" arrived into everyday life, people were thinking about how it would impact our world.

1998 itself is a turning point in many ways, when something changed. Apple returned to the market with the iMac, and the team that designed this platform would go on to design the iPhone and, most critical to IoT research, the iPod. Big name manufacturers that had for most of their development focused on the PC were now investing in everyday objects with connectivity and technological features. The smartphone era was planted, and with it would come the first real consumer-level IoT object based on existing computers.

The history of IoT is extraordinarily dense, and the reading of the history depends on who you ask. If you were to question a designer at IBM in the late 1980s, you would find ideas similar to what we now call IoT in constant use. However, if you ask an emerging startup from the early 2000s, you would find a wave of thinkers taking credit for the idea. The reality is somewhere in between: those who thought ahead about computers expected what we have today, billions of devices.

IoT has continued to grow and to evolve and projections are bright for this new methodology for using the internet. The future of IoT is now –with devices coming online every day. The world is reliant upon connected cars, connected medical devices and even connected homes.

Companies today are scrambling to get their own IoT systems online and moving, and new recruits are being brought in every day to head up IoT systems in companies from small to large. How well do they know the history of the space and exactly how broad it can be?

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When you read or hear about the Internet of Things (IoT), do you imagine that we’re not quite in an age where such a concept is able to be fully realized? Have you ever pointed towards the fragmentation in the market regarding devices and services, or even the complexity of IoT, and questioned how concepts like the connected home could be adopted on a widespread scale?

If you’re still questioning IoT at this point, then it’s possible that you’re simply not looking closely enough. Many of the products and services that you’re using are already a part of IoT.

Microsoft’s Office suite is a connected service on IoT, Apple’s ecosystem is IoT to the core, and even your late model vehicle is likely connected to IoT in some way. In the consumer world, IoT is simply the reality of all your devices being connected; from your game console, to your cellular phone, the computer in your office and on your coffee table, and even your automated home lighting, air conditioning, and garage door.

IoT as a concept was first described over 20 years ago by researchers at MIT. They spoke of a future where devices and sensors would collect and share data. There’s a reason why it is a buzzword today. Data capabilities, the decreasing cost of hardware, and the widespread adoption of the internet have made IoT possible for consumers, businesses, and large organizations across the world.

As a consumer, you’re probably already using IoT today. Your smartphone can connect to your home PC and control it remotely. You can set schedules for you Cable PVR and arrive home to your favorite programs already recorded and ready to play. You can even strap a smart device to your wrist while you jog, while also collecting data on your heart rate, the calories you’ve burnt, and even map a GLONASS or GPS tracked route of where you went.

You can then upload that data to the cloud and retrieve it later. You can share it with other people. You could even send the information to your personal trainer who can observe and advise around your exercise regime. This is what the Internet of Things is all about. For consumers, it’s all about the power of information.

IoT makes life easier. Progression has been gradual, and in many ways low key. This may be why many haven’t noticed it happening. When you used to collect your mail, there was one place where you could do it; your mailbox. Today, your mailbox is anywhere that you go, as long as you have a connected device. We used to bank inside buildings. ATM’s came later, and they increased the convenience. Today you can bank from a smartwatch. You can make payments with an NFC chip without swiping plastic. You can transfer your money from account to account from a Smartphone or PC.

The Internet of Things has provided countless advantages to society. From smarter automated manufacturing, to biometric implants in critical care patients, IoT does more than the average person knows. Perhaps the fact that we already use IoT without even knowing it, is testament to how important, influential, and firmly embedded IoT is in our lives today.

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The topic of IoT and farming keeps coming up.

Last month Steve Lohr of the New York Times wrote a fantastic piece on The Internet of Things and the Future of Farming. His colleague Quentin Hardy wrote a similar piece, albeit with a big data slant, in November 2014. If you have not yet read either article, I suggest you take the time to do so and also watch the video of IoT at work at a modern farm. It’s one of the better IoT case studies I’ve come across and shows real and practical applications and results.

Both stories highlight Tom Farms, a multi-generation, family owned farm in North Indiana. The Toms won’t be setting up a stand at your local farmers market to hawk their goods. With over 19,000 acres they are feeding a nice portion of America and conduct farming on an industrial scale producing shipments of more than 30 million pounds of seed corn, 100 million pounds of corn, and 13 million pounds of soybeans each year.

As the video points out, technology, data and connectivity have gotten them to this scale. After the farm crisis of the 1980s, they double-downed and bought more land from other struggling farmers. Along the way they were proactive in researching and developing new production technologies - everything from sensors on the combine, GPS data, self-driving tractors, and apps for irrigation on an iPhone.

Farmers and Tablet PC

Photo Credit: Gary McKenzie on Flickr

All this technology is taking farming to a new level, in what is know as Precision Agriculture. The holy grail of precision agriculture is to optimize returns on inputs while preserving resources. The most common use of of modern farming is used for guiding tractors with GPS. But what other technologies are out there?

For that, the Wall Street Journal explored yesterday startups that put data in farmers' hands. Startups like Farmobile LLC, Granular Inc. and Grower Information Services Cooperative are challenging data-analysis tools from big agricultural companies such as Monsanto Co., DuPont Co., Deere & Co. and Cargill Inc.

The new crop from all of these technologies is data.

This changes the economics for farmers making them not just traders in crops, but in data, potentially giving them an edge against larger competitors that benefit from economies of scale (to compete against giants like Tom Farms).  

With the amount of venture investment in so-called agtech start-ups reaching $2.06 billion in the first half of this year there will be plenty of bytes in every bushel.

For a deep dive into Precision Agriculture, the history and the technologies behind it, I suggest registering for and reading the Foreign Affairs article, “The Precision Agriculture Revolution, Making the Modern Farmer.”

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Guest blog post by Cameron Turner

Executive Summary

Though often the focus of the urban noise debate, Caltrain is one of many contributors to overall sound levels along the Bay Area’s peninsula corridor. In this investigation, Cameron Turner of Palo Alto’s The Data Guild takes a look at this topic using a custom-built Internet of Things (IoT) sensor atop the Helium networking platform.


If you live in (or visit) the Bay Area, chances are you have experience with the Caltrain. Caltrain is a commuter line which travels 77.4 miles between San Francisco and San Jose , carrying over 50 thousand passengers on over 70 trains daily.[1]

I’m lucky to live two blocks from the Caltrain line, and enjoy the convenience of the train. My office, The Data Guild, is just one block away. The Caltrain and its rhythms, bells and horns are a part of our daily life, and connect us to the City and with connections to BART, Amtrak, SFO and SJC, the rest of the world.

Over the holidays, my 4-year-old daughter and I undertook a project to quantify the Caltrain through a custom-built sensor and reporting framework, to get some first-hand experience in the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). This project also aligns with The Data Guild’s broader ambition to build out custom sensor systems atop network technologies to address global issues. (More on this here.)

Let me note here that this project was an exploration, and was not conducted in a manner (in goals or methodology) to provide fodder for either side of the many ongoing caltrain debates: the electrification project, quiet zone, or tragic recent deaths on the tracks.


My interest in such a project began with an article published in the Palo Alto Daily in October 2014. The article addressed the call for a quiet zone in downtown Palo Alto, following complaints from residents of buildings closest to the tracks. Many subjective frustrations were made by residents based on personal experience.

According the the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the rules by which Caltrain operates, train engineers “must begin to sound train horns at least 15 seconds, and no more than 20 seconds, in advance of all public grade crossings.”

Additionally: “Train horns must be sounded in a standardized pattern of 2 long, 1 short and 1 long blasts.” and “The maximum volume level for the train horn is 110 decibels which is a new requirement. The minimum sound level remains 96 decibels.“


Given the numeric nature of the rules, and the subjective nature of current analysis/discussion, it seemed an ideal problem to address with data. Some of the questions we hoped to address including and beyond this issue:

  • Timing: Are train horns sounded at the appropriate time?
  • Schedule: Are Caltrains coming and going on time?
  • Volume: Are the Caltrain horns sounding at the appropriate level?
  • Relativity: How do Caltrain horns contribute to overall urban noise levels?


Our methodology to address these topics included several steps:

  1. Build a custom sensor equipped to capture ambient noise levels
  2. Leverage an uplink capability to receive data from the sensor in near real-time
  3. Deploy sensor then monitor sensor output and test/modify as needed
  4. Develop a crude statistical model to convert sensor levels (voltage) to sound levels (dB)
  5. Analysis and reporting


We developed a simple sensor based on the Arduino platform. A baseline Uno board, equipped with a local ATmega328 processor, was wired to and Adafruit Electret Microphone/Amplifier 4466 w/adjustable gain.

We were lucky to be introduced through the O’Reilly Strata NY event to a local company: Helium. Backed by Khosla Ventures et al, Helium is building an internet of things platform for smart machines. They combine a wireless protocol optimized for device and sensor data with cloud-based tooling for working with the data and building applications.

We received a Beta Kit which included a Arduino shield for uplink to their bridge device, which then connects via GSM to the Internet. Here is our sensor (left) with the Helium bridge device (right).


With our instrument ready for deployment, we sought to find a safe location to deploy. By good fortune, a family friend (and member of the staff of the Stanford Statistics department, where I am completing my degree) owns a home immediately adjacent to a Caltrain crossing, where Caltrain operators are required to sound their horn.

Conductors might also be particularly sensitive to this crossing, Churchill St., due to its proximity to Palo Alto High School and the tragic train-related death of a teen, recently.

From a data standpoint, this location was ideal as it sits approximately half-way between the Palo Alto and California Avenue stations.

We deployed our sensor outdoors facing the track in a waterproof enclosure and watched the first data arrive.


Through a connector to Helium’s fusion platform, we were able to see data in near real-time. (note the “debug” window on the right, where microphone output level arrives each second).

We used another great service, provided by Librato, (now a part of SolarWinds) a San Francisco-based monitoring and metrics company. Using Librato, we enabled data visualization of the sound levels as they were generated. We were able to view this relative to its history. This was a powerful capability as we worked to fine-tune the power and amplifier.

Note the spike in the middle of the image above, which we could map to a train horn heard ourselves during the training period.

Data Preparation

Next, we took a weekday (January 7, 2015), which appeared typical of a non-holiday weekday relative to the entire month of data collected. For this period, we were able to construct a 24-hour data set at 1-second sample intervals for our analysis.

Data was accessed through the Librato API, downloaded as JSON, converted to CSV and cleansed.


First, to gain intuition, we took a sample recording gathered at the sensor site of a typical train horn.

Click HERE to hear the sample sound.

Using matplotlib within an ipython notebook, we are able to “see” this sound, in both its raw audio form and as a spectrogram showing frequency:

Next, we look at our entire 24 hours of data, beginning on the evening of January 6, and concluding 24 hours later on the evening of January 7th. Note the quiet “overnight” period, about a quarter of the way across the x axis.

To put this into context, we overlay the Caltrain schedule. Given the sensor sits between the Palo Alto and California Avenue stations, and given the variance in stop times, we mark northbound trains using the scheduled stop at Palo Alto (red), and southbound trains using the scheduled stop at California Ave (green).

Initially, we can make two converse observations: many peak sound events tend to lie quite close to these stop times, as expected. However: many of the sound events (including the maximum recorded value, the nightly ~11pm freight train service) occur independent of the scheduled Caltrains.

Conversion to Decibels

On the Y axis above, the sound level is reported in the raw voltage output from the Microphone. To address the questions above we needed a way to convert these values to decibel units (dB).

To do so, a low-cost sound meter was obtained from Fry’s. Then an on-site calibration was performed to map decibel readings from the sensor to the voltage output uploaded from our microphone.

Within R Studio, these values were plotted and a crude estimation function was derived to create a linear mapping between voltage and dB:

The goal of doing a straight line estimate vs. log-linear was to compensate for differences in apparatus (dB meter vs. microphone within casing) and overall to maintain conservative approximations. Most of the events in question during the observation period were between 2.0 and 2.5 volts, where we collected several training points (above).

A challenge in this process was the slight lag between readings and data collection with unknown variance. As such, only “peak” and “trough” measurements could be used reliably to build the model.

With this crude conversion estimator in hand, we would now replot the data above with decibels on the y axis.

Clearly the “peaks” above are of interest as outliers from the baseline noise level at this site. In fact, there are 69 peaks (>82 dB) observed (at 1-second sample rate), and 71 scheduled trains for this same period. Though this location was about 100 yards removed from the tracks, the horns are quieter than the recommended 96dB-115dB range recommended by the FRA. (With caveat above re: crude approximator)

Interesting also that we’re not observing the “two long-two short-one long” pattern. Though some events are lost to the sampling rate, qualitatively this does not seem to be a standard practice followed by the engineers. Those who live in Palo Alto also know this to be true, qualitatively.

Also worth noting is the high variance of ambient noise, the central horizontal blue “cloud” above, ranging from ~45 dB to ~75 dB. We sought to understand the nature of this variance and whether it contained structure.

Looking more closely at just a few minutes of data during the Jan 7 morning commute, we can see that indeed there is a periodic structure to the variance.

In comparing to on-site observations, we could determine that this period was defined by the traffic signal which sits between the sensor and the train tracks, on Alma St. Additionally, we often observe an “M” structure (bimodal peak) indicating the southbound traffic accelerating from the stop line when the light turned green, followed by the passing northbound traffic seconds later.

Looking at a few minutes of the same morning commute, we can clearly see when the train passed and sounded its horn. Here again, green indicates a southbound train, red indicates and northbound train.

In this case, the southbound train passed slightly before its scheduled arrival time at the California Avenue station, and the Northbound train passed within its scheduled arrival minute, both on time. Note also the peak unassociated with the train. We’ll discuss this next.

Perhaps a more useful summary of the data collected is shown as a histogram, where the decibels are shown on the X axis and the frequency (count) is shown on the Y axis.

We can clearly see a bimodal distribution, where sound is roughly normally distributed, with a second distribution at the higher end. The question still remained why several of the peak observed values fell nowhere near the scheduled train time?

The answer here requires no sensors: airplanes, sirens and freight trains are frequent noise sources in Palo Alto. These factors, coupled with a nearby residential construction project accounted for the non-regular noise events we observed.

Click HERE to hear a sample sound.

Finally, we subsetted the data into three groups, one to look at non-Train minutes, one to look at northbound train minutes and one to look at southbound train minutes. The mean dB levels were 52.13, 52.18 and 52.32 respectively. While the order here makes sense, these samples bury the outcome since a horn blast may only be one second of a train-minute. The difference between northbound and southbound are consistent with on-site observation-- given the sensor lies on the northeast corner of the crossing, horn blasts from southbound trains were more pronounced.


Before making any conclusions it should be noted again that these are not scientific findings, but rather an attempt to add some rigor to the discussion around Caltrain and noise pollution. Further study with a longer period of analysis and duplicity of data collection would be required to statistically state these conclusions.

That said, we can readdress the topics in question:

Timing: Are train horns sounded at the appropriate time?

The FRA recommends engineers sound their horn between 15 and 20 seconds before a crossing. Given the tight urban nature of this crossing this recommendation seems a misfit. Caltrain engineers are sounding within 2-3 seconds of the crossing, which seems more appropriate.

Schedule: Are Caltrains coming and going on time?

Though not explored in depth here, generally we can observe that trains are passing our sensor prior to their scheduled arrival at the upcoming station.

Volume: Are the Caltrain horns sounding at the appropriate level?

As discussed above, the apparent dB level at a location very close to the track was well below the FRA recommended levels.

Relativity: How do Caltrain horns contribute to overall urban noise levels?

The Caltrain horns generate roughly an additional 10dB to peak baseline noise levels, including period traffic events at the intersection observed.


Due to their regular frequency and physical presence, trains are an easy target when it comes to urban sound attenuation efforts. However, the regular oscillations of traffic, sirens, airplanes and construction create a very high, if not predictable baseline above which trains must be heard.

Considering the importance of safety to this system, which operates just inches from bikers, drivers and pedestrians, there is a tradeoff to be made between supporting quiet zone initiatives and the capability of speeding trains to be heard.

In Palo Alto, as we move into an era of electric cars, improved bike systems and increased pedestrian access, the oscillations of noise created by non-train activities may indeed subside over time. And this in turn, might provide an opportunity to lower the “alert sounds” such as sirens and train horns required to deliver these services safely. Someday much of our everyday activity might be accomplished quietly.

Until then, we can only appreciate these sounds which must rise above our noisy baseline, as a reminder of our connectedness to the greater bay area through our shared focus on safety and convenient public transportation.


Sincere thanks to Helen T. and Nick Parlante of Stanford University, Mark Phillips of Helium and Nik Wekwerth/Jason Derrett/Peter Haggerty of Librato for their help and technical support.

Thanks also to my peers at The Data Guild, Aman, Chris, Dave and Sandy and the Palo Alto Police IT department for their feedback.

And thanks to my daughter Tallulah for her help soldering and moral support.


Originally posted on LinkedIn. 

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