"From Smart Homes to women's safety, IoT can help our cities run better"

The Internet of Things (IoT) is generating as much interest as it is questions. The idea of heterogeneous devices being able to communicate with each other through a variety of means is opening up a world of possibilities. BWSC caught up with UDAY CHALLU, CEO iYogi – a global technology products and services company from India that has developed an award-winning IoT platform – to talk about smart cities, public safety, smart homes and more.

Uday Challu

BW Smart Cities: What is the Internet of Things (IoT), and can it help the government deliver on its Smart Cities vision? Uday Challu: The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term coined to represent the growing web of connected devices that communicate with one another regularly and, based on the information they gather, carry out specified simple or complex actions automatically. These devices or things’ typically contain a sensor, come embedded with a communication protocol that allows them to exchange information with other devices and an intelligence engine that allows them to process information and act on it. There are several areas where the government can implement IoT applications – but Smart City development is the most prominent. IoT can play a big role in making cities run more efficiently through resource monitoring and management, and make them safer for citizens through crime prevention and disaster management. BWSC: What is iYogi’s ‘Kavach’ program all about? UC: ‘Kavach’ is our approach to using IoT for making cities safer, specifically for women. It includes three pillars, two of which comprise a technology solution for creating an effective emergency response system in cities. These include wearable devices such as panic pendants or bracelets. These simple devices can trigger panic alarms and transmit geo-location information with the simple click of a button. They are small, lightweight, can be concealed easily, consume little or no battery, and can be cost effective. An IoT platform that can manage and monitor millions of devices at the same time, and serve as a conduit between the devices’ physical response systems at the back end is another element. Such a platform can ensure that information transmitted by the panic devices can be captured, processed and acted upon quickly by the right agencies. The third pillar is the response system itself. We believe that the PPP model should be implemented in emergency response as well, but not necessarily in terms of funding. Citizens should be mobilised to become a part of the response mechanism itself. For instance, when a panic alarm is set off, the alerts should go to not only the nearest police station and PCRs in the vicinity, but also to citizen response groups that have been specially created in zones that cover a two square kilometer radius. BWSC: But why ‘Kavach’? There are several programs that have been announced that use technology – such as the mobile application introduced by the Delhi Police recently. UC: Over the last two years, several private and public bodies and even state governments have introduced mobile applications that also serve as panic alarms. The choice of the mobile phone as a panic device, although logical, is not the right one for several reasons. Smart phones, which these applications run on are a fraction of the total mobile phone penetration and, by nature, come in large form factors that make them conspicuous and therefore not as effective for emergencies. They take time to activate – raising an alarm, for instance, using a smartphone can take up to 30 seconds. They consume a lot of power and the risk of the battery running out at the wrong time is high; and they remain expensive for most. In addition, these applications represent only one part of the solution. ‘Kavach’ is more than that. BWSC: Isn’t it just easier and more cost effective for the government to use mobile phones as the preferred device? The uptake is high and they’re becoming cheaper. Wearable devices on the other hand are just on the horizon. UC: It might be easier right now, yes, but does that mean it is the right option? Mobile phone adoption is on the rise, but they still remain expensive for the average Indian. Also, the other issues that I just mentioned with using mobile phones remain unaddressed. Wearable devices are a new category of technology products, which, if provided the right impetus through the government’s Make in India programme – can easily and cost-effectively be manufactured and distributed. Just like government focus spawned a local manufacturing industry for PCs, wearable devices could be the next opportunity. Imagine a wearable device that finally costs Rs. 200 and the government gives it away for free to certain sections of society, including foreigners who travel to India. With a powerful technology platform at the backend that makes it easy to deploy, track and manage these devices automatically – the potential impact is tremendous. BWSC: What other role do you see IoT playing in the government’s Smart City vision? UC: While most of the other application areas for IoT such as its use in disaster prediction and management, traffic management and energy management besides safety are well discussed, the role that IoT can play in creating smarter homes and communities is ignored. That’s an area where we see tremendous long term potential. BWSC: What is the role that Smart Homes play in the realisation of the Smart City vision? UC: Smart Cities have various definitions depending on who you talk to. To the government they represent a more efficient way of running cities, to city planners they are about effective utilisation of space, to architects they are about modern buildings that consume minimum resources while meeting the needs of those who occupy them. At the core of every perspective though, lie individuals or citizens. Smart Cities are about providing a better quality of life to citizens through improved, efficient and less expensive- access to essential services and infrastructure, a cleaner and healthier environment, and safer and more secure communities. All of these improvements should also start at the ground level, which is within homes. As essential building blocks of any city, homes and the physical communities that people live in need to be made smarter. BWSC: Smart Homes continue to be expensive and a luxury that only a few can afford. With the government yet to provide basic affordable housing for all – aren’t smart homes an impractical suggestion? UC: No, not at all. First of all, the technology required, including sensors, circuit boards, and the devices themselves, is easily available and very cost effective. In fact, it is technically possible to add smart home functionality to a home at about one percent of the total cost today. The second point is that Smart Homes actually pay for themselves, through the cost efficiencies that they enable. Smart Homes allow a significant reduction in energy consumption, and the productivity improvement provides an opportunity for people to do more with their time. For example, if Smart Homes do become the norm, they could actually address a lot of the issues that prevent mothers from getting back to work. Or help families reduce the cost of hired help. If truly integrated with the rest of the city infrastructure, Smart Homes could open up new opportunities for commerce within the community – such as a daycare facility where children can be monitored remotely, if the parents so choose. If we take all these factors, and combine them with the fact that the government can influence the cost of technology significantly, it is not an issue at all. Here too, the government’s Make in India initiative could facilitate the development of the right technologies at the right price point – making it very easy to make homes smarter. BWSC: How do Smart Homes help the government deliver on its priorities? UC: Smart Homes represent the last-mile link to a citizen, and as such should be part of any long-term strategy adopted for Smart Cities. The current government has already taken a forward thinking approach in this manner – by envisioning new cities that are smart or resource efficient from the ground up. Of course, existing cities remain on the agenda, but clearly the government realises that new cities need to be built so they can meet the needs of a growing India, long into the future. Smart Homes can help deliver on the government’s Smart City agenda by streamlining citizen-state collaboration. Specifically there are three things that Smart Homes can help the government do: they can help the government roll out, manage and monitor new citizen-centric initiatives and services efficiently they can help the government manage resource consumption at the home level; and they can truly help improve the quality of life of citizens. BWSC: Who do you see as the key enablers of this vision? UC: The first is the government - by including Smart Homes in its overall Smart City vision, the government can align the rest of the industry in the right direction. Technology companies are natural partners, and can help by creating localised solutions in line with market needs. A very important role is played by the real estate developer community, which can help expedite the adoption. Their investment in this vision can help create smart city prototypes at the community or individual level, and set the ball rolling. There are several great examples already on display across India, but a lot more should be done. Views expressed are personal.