The IoT Chronicles Part 1: Demystification and Strategy

If you follow my blog, then you know I talk a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT). As Avaya’s Chief Technologist for Software Defined Architecture, I love to discuss the IoT, a vast topic that I believe all business leaders should continuously educate themselves on. (See my recent blog and my colleague Mark Fletcher’s blog about the possibilities and outcomes of smarter public safety and emergency response—something that affects every one of us.)

With research indicating that the next decade will be marked by record IoT growth—some firms expect revenue to break into the trillions—it’s never a bad idea to revisit the fundamentals. There’s no question the IoT is hot right now, but businesses need to buckle down and take the right steps that will make a lasting impact. Leaders must have a solid understanding of the IoT and, most importantly, what it means for their organizations outside all the hype. While the IoT offers ample opportunity for innovation and growth, there are undoubtedly key considerations that must be made for seeing success.

So, hype aside, what do you need to know about the IoT? This is the first in a this four-part blog series, a crash course on the ever-growing world of connected “things”—from top challenges to solutions to predictions and trends. Got your pencil and paper? Good, let’s get started…

What is the IoT?

Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is the IoT? The term has been tossed around so much that you’d think by now you’d have an inherent understanding of it. Like many other concepts though, definitions vary and can be subject to opinion.

Wikipedia, for instance, defines the IoT as “the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items that are embedded with software, sensors and network connectivity capabilities that enable these objects to collect and exchange data.” This definition isn’t inaccurate; however, the way I see it, anything that can connect to either a network or provide any sort of service (not just data collection and exchange) should be considered part of the IoT.

We may be living in an age full of wearable technologies and 4/5G-enabled devices, but who’s to say that older technologies like printers, digital and analog phones or first-generation video conferencing systems aren’t part of the IoT? If anything, these were significant predecessors that paved the way to IoT greatness.

My point is that the IoT is very loosely defined in today’s market, but the end goal is the same: create automated (and in many cases data-driven) processes that generate the exact business outcome you’re looking for.

What kinds of outcomes? Imagine a sensor that can detect a forest fire and send out real-time notifications to emergency response teams to prevent it from spreading. Consider a 4G-connected car that can detect a flat tire and immediately notify the nearest repairman. Picture bank tellers that can identify customers (or criminals) as soon as they walk through the door via facial recognition. The use cases for IoT are truly endless, which is why we at Avaya define the IoT as simply having an open scope. Virtually anything can be considered part of the IoT, and so anything is possible.

How to Create Your Best IoT Approach

Do a quick Google search on the IoT and you’ll see all sorts of results like, “The IoT Is Far Bigger Than Anyone Realizes” or “How People Are Using the IoT.” These are good pieces of information, but how many resources are out there for helping you create the best IoT approach for your specific organization? What steps should you take? What steps can you take given your circumstances? You must consider such things as budgets and internal bandwidth to ensure you properly invest in and get the most value out of IoT.

I can’t give you a custom-tailored IoT strategy on the fly (although that’s something we at Avaya can help you map out and execute in time). What I can do right now is shed light on the reality of the IoT, and how businesses can leverage it in a positive way.

The first step to figuring out how the IoT can deliver proactive, positive outcomes for your business is to look at your specific vertical needs. It’s critical that businesses understand the vertical-specific nature of the IoT. Every industry has its own set of opportunities, as well as its own set of challenges to overcome.

For instance, within a hospital, there’s the critical need for fully secure connectivity between life-saving medical devices, as well as the need to seamlessly and immediately deliver patient data to medical staff. Meanwhile, a financial institution is concerned with how to guarantee account protection and secure financial transactions while providing a personalized experience for customers. A retailer may be focused on detecting the proximity of a customer in order to push relevant promotions based on big data analytics.

Every industry is centered on different yet equally important business outcomes that lead to better customer experiences. Needless to say, you’ll fall 10 steps behind your competitors if you partner with a provider that touts a “one-size-fits-all” IoT platform.

Steps You Can Take Now for IoT Success

So, after you finish reading this, what can you begin doing to set yourself up for IoT success? One question you can ask yourself in terms of security (a massive IoT concern I’ll be tackling in Part 2 of this series) is: “Am I segmenting my network to ensure no one can see my connected devices, or access those devices without proper authorization?” I’ll be digging deeper into this in Part 2. In the meantime, read up on end-to-end network segmentation.

To make a lasting impact, you should also avoid a siloed IoT approach at all costs (or break your existing siloed approach). All lines of business (LOBs) must move at one unified pace of innovation to produce better business outcomes and customer experiences. I can’t stress the importance of this cross-LOB initiative enough. If one department is adding connected devices, you must ensure those devices can intelligently connect to all other LOBs. In today’s smart, digital world, the IoT is rooted in being able to seamlessly and intelligently gather and share data organization-wide. Today, tangible ROI and benefits are found in enterprise-wide connectivity and data exchange.

Coming up: In part 2 of this series, I’ll address the elephant in the room when it comes to the IoT: security.

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Connected Health: The Digital Transformation of Care Innovation

All around the world, across the spectrum of disease, IT is changing our approach to chronic conditions and how we approach connected health. Text messages remind people living with HIV to take their medication and keep their medical appointments. Smartphone apps diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder by analyzing a user’s voice. Online forums enable breast cancer patients and survivors to trade information related to every stage of their care.

Collectively known as “connected health,” these recent, IT-driven innovations represent the intersection of digital technology and care. They’re transforming not only the way people manage their own health, but also the way they interact with their healthcare providers.

Unintended, but welcomed, consequences

By and large, connected health is an adaptation of technologies that were originally developed for other purposes. Mobile technology started out as a voice communication tool. Instant messaging was an outgrowth of online chat rooms. Social media became a means for making new friends.

Now these technologies have evolved and converged in a way that is overcoming formerly intractable barriers to care. By minding the agenda of day-to-day care, for instance, they give people the opportunity to stay in adherence with their treatments even where clinical visits are impractical due to cost, distance or availability. And by helping patients preserve their privacy, make sense of their conditions, and learn from others with similar experiences, health IT can lift the stifling veil of stigma from disease. 

The implications don’t stop with the individual. Connected health also helps people manage their own disease state so they don’t spread it to others. Across whole populations, it can allow interventions aimed at preventing chronic diseases, such as behavioral modifications that reduce the incidence of obesity.

Changing care innovation paradigms

In all these respects, connectivity is bringing to medicine a level of accountability and democratization that seemed unimaginable not so long ago. But it’s also dialing up the urgency of some unanswered questions. Among them:

  • What information is appropriate to gather? Not all information has value in a healthcare setting.
  • Will information remain proprietary? It’s unclear to what extent stakeholders are willing to advance the interests of the community ahead of the interests of a company.
  • What would a sharing paradigm look like? If companies were to share information, they would need a seamless, cohesive way to do it.
  • How will privacy and security be preserved? Artificial intelligence and machine learning are critical pieces of this equation.
  • How will healthcare use technologies to create new models of care? Today’s applications are largely geared toward improving quality and outcomes of existing care models.

There’s no one-size fits all solution to these questions. Neither is care innovation strictly a technology issue. Technologists must collaborate with clinicians, patients, and patient advocates to take care coordination and operational efficiency to the next level in helping people cope with long-term diseases. A new, technology-powered paradigm—one that transcends existing constraints of time and resources—can bring a welcome transformation in the ongoing management of care coordination and the patient experience.

Avaya Equinox, Now with Team Collaboration, Just Got More “Go-To”

 

I recently read that the Apple App Store now contains about 2.2 million apps. It’s an amazing number and a testament to the creativity of developers and the variety of our human interests and needs. But it made me wonder: how many apps can we really use on a regular basis & for what? Are they for fun? Are they informative? Do they increase team collaboration? If your smartphone is like mine, you’ve got a number of go-to apps that you use regularly, let’s say weekly, and probably a few you use daily or almost constantly. Then there are the Tier 2 apps, hiding in your folders that seldom see the light of day. It’s fun to delve into these folders every few months and rediscover the apps that I thought looked so interesting at the time but now languish for months on end.

What’s fun for personal apps however, can often become a nightmare in the work world. We all have someone in the office that has that need to be first with the latest hot app, to provide their take on what’s cool and what’s not and make everyone else feel a little short of the mark for not using it first. Of course most of these apps get frenzied activity for about 3 ½ days and then slip into oblivion. The issue for most of us is we simply have too much on the go to be constantly changing the way we work and coercing others to adopt our favorite app of the week.

What my work day really needs is a true go-to app. One that makes me more productive, more reachable, more on track and that lets me get to my tasks and meetings with a single touch. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know where I’m going with this: my go-to app is Avaya Equinox®. With its “mobile-first” Top of Mind screen, it provides me with at-a-glance visibility to meetings, instant messages and my call history giving me a single place to keep up to date and productive regardless of where my day may take me.

I’m happy to say that my go-to app just got more, well, “go-to”. The Avaya UC experience that I rely on every day is now being extended with the integration of a cloud-based team collaboration capability.  It gives me the full benefits of a team work environment that integrates voice, video, persistent team chat and messaging, along with file and screen sharing, all from within the Avaya Equinox experience.

Let me give you an example of these new Equinox team collaboration capabilities in action. I’m currently working with an external vendor on a major project. Our work will carry on for several quarters with new materials being created that need review, discussion, and likely several rounds of back and forth. To get the project kicked off and a vendor selected, we needed the full gamut of collaboration capabilities from simple voice calls to several all-day video conferences with participants joining from around the world – something easily managed with Avaya Equinox. 

The next step was to establish a core team and shift into a regular cadence of interaction. Adding the participants to the team collaboration space from both inside and outside Avaya was a snap and we were instantly able to communicate with one another – I use one to one instant messaging for small items or questions and chat when I want to involve the entire team for broader issues. Tasks get assigned within Avaya Equinox to keep our review cycles on track and we use the file sharing capability avoid clogging up our email. If I’m off line at some point, due to travel or other activity, a quick glance at Avaya Equinox gets me back up to speed with the team’s progress.

On a weekly basis, we usually need some face time, and Avaya Equinox provides complete meeting capabilities including audio / video conferencing with screen sharing so we all gain the advantages of personal interaction. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can all collaborate on content in real-time – it’s more productive and prevents misunderstandings across a widely distributed team. 

In many ways our team collaboration space has become a virtual “war room”.  Information is clearly visible and easily shared, I can see who’s available at any time and formal and informal discussions can be initiated with ease.

There’s no shortage of apps available to anyone with a mobile device and the time to spend browsing around an app store. The real challenge is finding those few go-to apps that you’ll use every day. If you aren’t using Avaya Equinox yet, I’d encourage you to give it a try. I think it will make your short list of “go-to” apps and in a month or two, you might wonder how you got through your day without it!

Building SMS Text Bots is a Breeze

As a nerdy guy, I love movies about other nerdy guys. Give me movies like “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Theory of Everything,” or “Einstein and Eddington” (two nerdy scientists for the price of one), and I am in geek heaven. Recently, I was thrilled by “The Imitation Game”—the story of Alan Turing and his quest to break Germany’s WWII secret code. While I would never dare to compare myself to Mr. Turing, I like to think that we would have a few things in common. One area would be our shared interest in natural language processing and intelligent behavior.

Way back in 1950, Turing crystallized his research into these studies in what has become known as The Turing Test. Simply put, The Turing Test is a test of a machine’s ability to impersonate a human being. For a machine to pass The Turing Test, it must be able to participate in a conversation with a human being to the point where the human doesn’t realize that he or she is interacting with a machine. I can only imagine what Turing would think of today’s technology such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. Better yet, imagine Alan conversing with the robot, Sophia. Would he be excited or frightened? Personally, I am a little of both.

Real or Not

If you have been reading my articles on No Jitter and here on the Avaya blog, you know how enamored I am of the Breeze and Zang workflow designers. Although I have spent the bulk of my professional life writing software in programming languages such C++ and Java, I have fallen in love with how quickly I can use the Breeze/Zang tools to go from idea, to prototype, to a production-quality application. I like to say that if you can draw it on a whiteboard, you can “code” it with Breeze.

So, the day I decided to build a text bot, I knew exactly how I was going to do it. Starting with a list of things I wanted my text bot to do, I was soon drawing out message flows and decision points (if this, do that). Once I was happy I had captured all the salient points, I turned to my computer and began typing. Early on, I realized that there was no way on earth I could capture all the different text messages my application would need to process. For instance, how many different ways can you ask for the location of a store? “Where are you located?” “What is your address?” “What city are you in?” “How can I find you?” The variations are nearly endless.

To solve this problem, I turned to natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI). That, of course, led me to the 500-pound gorilla in the room—IBM Watson. With Watson, I can build “Conversations” that allow me to create intents, entities, and dialogs. Intents are used to classify a request. You can think of entities as modifiers to those intents. Dialogs are the words you want to “speak” after determining the intent.

For example, consider the phrase “Are you open on Sunday?” Here, the intent could be classified as “hours.” The entity is “Sunday.” A proper dialog could be, “We are open on Sunday from 12:00 to 5:00.” To keep things simple, I created three intents for my bot: Directions, Holidays, Hours. Those intents resulted in three dialogs. I left off entities for now.

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My next decision point had to do with maintaining a conversation over many text messages. For that I choose Avaya’s Contest Store, which allows me to temporarily store information about a text conversation. This information can then be accessed over the life of the chat.

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Now that I had an engine to process incoming text messages (Watson), and a method of maintaining a chat’s context (Contest Store), it was time to launch the Avaya Breeze Engagement Designer. I will admit that I still had a few logic problems to work through, but I would not be stretching the truth if I said that I had a rough draft of my text bot up and running in less than an hour. Working through those remaining issues consumed another couple of hours, but in a fraction of the time it would take me to write my application in Java, my bot was accepting text messages, building contexts, and texting back replies.

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I should also say that my bot is fully multi-user. It didn’t matter if one or one hundred people were all texting in at the same time. My bot kept track of each individual conversation and no one received a text meant for someone else.

 
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While my example bot is fairly simple in terms of what it can handle, the framework is extendable to just about any SMS conversations you might want to support. Future plans have me using Context Store to save the entire conversation between human and machine. Not only could this be useful for determining how accurately my bot responds to incoming requests, but it could also be used to help better serve customers. A recorded chat sessions could be presented to a human agent in the case where the user moved from text to a phone call.

Next, I would love to incorporate some of the other features that Watson provides. For example, by detecting the tone/sentiment of the conversation, my bot could sense if the human was becoming frustrated with the answers he or she was receiving from my bot. This would allow the bot to either escalate the chat to a live agent, or have an agent follow up afterwards to help soothe over what might have been an unpleasant experience – or both.

Mischief Managed

Human to human conversations aren’t going away anytime soon, but more and more machines are going to step in to handle the easy to moderately hard stuff. The point is not to trick people into thinking they are talking to a human being. The point is that machines can handle tedious jobs without coming across as machines.

While I highly doubt that anyone will ever make a movie about Andrew and his fabulous text bots, it isn’t all about fame and glory, right? This is exciting technology and the fact that I can use Breeze to create sophisticated bots by easily combining powerful, but disparate technologies, is red-carpet stuff.