Category Archives: Energy and Environment

At ThingMonk 2013

I attended ThingMonk 2013 conference partly because IBM’s doing a load of work around the Internet of Things (IoT). I figured it would be useful to find out what’s happening in the world of IoT at the moment. Also, I knew that, as a *Monk production, the food would be amazing.

What is the Internet of Things?

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with using devices to access information, communicate, buy things, and so on over the Internet. The Internet of Things, at a superficial level, is just taking the humans out of the process. So, for example, if your washing machine were connected to the Internet, it could automatically book a service engineer if it detects a fault.

I say ‘at a superficial level’ because there are obviously still issues relevant to humans in an automated process. It matters that the automatically-scheduled appointment is convenient for the householder. And it matters that the householder trusts that the machine really is faulty when it says it is and that it’s not the manufacturer just calling out a service engineer to make money.

This is how James Governor of RedMonk, who conceived and hosted ThingMonk 2013, explains IoT:

What is ThingMonk 2013?

ThingMonk 2013 was a fun two-day conference in London. On Monday was a hackday with spontaneous lightning talks and on Tuesday were the scheduled talks and the evening party. I wasn’t able to attend Monday’s hackday so you’ll have to read someone else’s write-up about that (you could try Josie Messa’s, for instance).

The talks

I bought my Arduino getting started kit (which I used for my Christmas lights energy project in 2010) from Tinker London so I was pleased to finally meet Tinker’s former-CEO, Alexandra Dechamps-Sonsino, at ThingMonk 2013. I’ve known her on Twitter for about 4 years but we’d never met in person. Alex is also founder of the Good Night Lamp, which I blogged about earlier this year. She talked at ThingMonk about “the past, present and future of the Internet of Things” from her position of being part of it.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch

I think it was probably Nick O’Leary who first introduced me to the Arduino, many moons ago over cups of tea at work. He spoke at ThingMonk about wiring the Internet of Things. This included a demo of his latest project, NodeRED, which he and IBM have recently open sourced on GitHub.

Nick O'Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things
Nick O’Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things

Sadly I missed the previous day when it seems Nick and colleagues, Dave C-J and Andy S-C, won over many of the hackday attendees to the view that IBM’s MQTT and NodeRED are the coolest things known to developerkind right now. So many people mentioned one or both of them throughout the day. One developer told me he didn’t know why he’d not tried MQTT 4 years ago. He also seemed interested in playing with NodeRED, just as soon as the shock that IBM produces cool things for developers had worn off.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse talked about the role of Open Source in the Internet of Things. Eclipse has recently started the Paho project, which focuses on open source implementations of the standards and protocols used in IoT. The project includes IBM’s Really Small Message Broker and Roger Light’s Mosquitto.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse
Ian Skerrett from Eclipse

Andy Piper talked about the role of signals in the IoT.

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There were a couple of talks about people’s experiences of startups producing physical objects compared with producing software. Tom Taylor talked about setting up Newspaper Club, which is a site where you can put together and get printed your own newspaper run. His presentation included this slide:

IMG_1534Matt Webb talked about producing Little Printer, which is an internet-connected device that subscribes to various sources and prints them for you on a strip of paper like a shop receipt.

IMG_1550Patrick Bergel made the very good point in his talk that a lot of IoT projects, at the moment, are aimed at ‘non-problems’. While fun and useful for learning what we can do with IoT technologies, they don’t really address the needs of real people (ie people who aren’t “hackers, hipsters, or weirdos”). For instance, there are increasing numbers of older people who could benefit from things that address problems social isolation, dementia, blindness, and physical and cognitive impairments. His point was underscored throughout the day by examples of fun-but-not-entirely-useful-as-is projects, such as flying a drone with fruit. That’s not to say such projects are a waste of time in themselves but that we should get moving on projects that address real problems too.

IMG_1539The talk which chimed the most with me, though, was Claire Rowland‘s on the important user experience UX issues around IoT. She spoke about the importance of understanding how users (householders) make sense of automated things in their homes.

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The book

I bought a copy of Adrian McEwan‘s Designing The Internet of Things book from Alex’s pop-up shop, (Works)shop. Adrian’s a regular at OggCamp and kindly agreed to sign my copy of his book for me.

Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.
Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.

The food

The food was, as expected, amazing. I’ve never had bacon and scrambled egg butties that melt in the mouth before. The steak and Guinness casserole for lunch was beyond words. The evening party was sustained with sushi and tasty curry.

Thanks, James!

Treehouse holiday

Back in 2010, we stayed in a treehouse in the South of France. It was really quite high up (lots of steps)…

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…really rather comfy…and a bit arty…

…had a posh bathroom…

…and a hammock on the balcony!

I just couldn’t stop grinning after we arrived and were shown to our treehouse. I’d have loved to have stayed somewhere like this when I was little. Especially as one of the other treehouses there, aimed at families, actually had a little bridge to a mini-treehouse where the children sleep!

The treehouse, and three others, is among the trees in the garden of the owner. There’s an outdoor breakfast area next to her house where she served croissants to us and the other guests each morning…

Down in the middle of the garden is a swimming pool that is filtered naturally rather than using chlorine and looks like a big pond around the edges…

It’s all very pretty and peaceful. I found the place when I was looking for ‘green’ holidays and came across a review on the GreenTraveller.co.uk website. The place itself is called Orion. It’s very close to Nice and is lovely. I recommend it.

While we were there, we spent a day at the not-so-green Monaco, just 3 weeks after the F1 Grand Prix so we were able to walk the track, go up into the grandstands that had yet to be put away, and see the rubber tyre marks on the ground:

monaco-tyremark

It was pretty cool too.

(I took all the photos except the last one, which is an @tonywhitmore original. I like it a lot and you can even buy in pretty much any reasonable size here.)

Reflecting on our total home energy usage

The graph of our total gas usage per year doesn’t decrease quite so impressively as our electricity graph, which I blogged about halving over five years. Because the numbers were getting ridiculously big and difficult to compare at a glance, I’ve re-created the electricity graph here in terms of our average daily electricity usage instead of our annual usage (click the graph to see a larger version):

Graph of daily electricity usage per year.

 

If you compare it with the average daily gas usage graph below, you can see (just from the scales of the y-axes) that we use much more gas than electricity (except in 2007, which was an anomalous year because we didn’t have a gas fire during the winter so we used a electric halogen heater instead):

 

Graph of daily gas usage per year.

Our gas usage has come down overall since 2005 (from 11280 kWh in 2005 to 8660 kWh in 2011; or 31 kWh per day to 24 kWh per day on average) but not so dramatically as our electricity usage has. Between 2005 and 2011, we reduced our electricity usage by about a half  and our gas usage by about a quarter.

Gas, in our house, is used only for heating rooms and water. So if I were to chart the average outside temperatures of each year, they’d probably track reasonably closely to our gas usage. In 2005 (when we used an average of 31 kWh per day), we still had our old back boiler (with a lovely 1970s gas fire attached) which our central heating installer reckoned was about 50% efficient. In 2006 (26 kWh per day), we replaced it with a new condensing boiler (apparently 95% efficient) but didn’t replace the gas fire until mid-2007 (the dodgy year that doesn’t really count). In 2006, we also had the living-room (our most heated room) extended so it had a much better insulated outside wall, door, and window. These changes could explain the pattern of reducing gas usage year by year up till then.

Old boiler being removed

In 2009, January saw sub-zero temperatures and it snowed in November and December. I think that must be the reason why our usage for the whole year shot back up again, despite the new boiler, to 31 kWh per day. In 2010 (21 kWh per day), it was again very cold and snowy in January; I think the slight dip in gas usage that year compared with both 2008 (25 kWh per day) and 2011 (24 kWh per day) was down to a problem with the gas fire that meant we used the electric halogen heater again during the coldest month. In 2011 it snowed in January but was fairly mild for the rest of the year.

I think 2008, 2010, and 2011 probably represent ‘typical’ years of heating our house with its new boiler and gas fire. Like I concluded about reducing our electricity usage, I think our gas usage went down mostly by getting some better insulation and a more efficient boiler but we did also reduce the default temperature of our heating thermostat to about 17 degrees C (instead of 20 degrees C) a couple of years ago too (we increase it when we need to but it stays low if we don’t), which I think has made some difference but it’s hard to tell when our heating usage is so closely tied to the outside temperature. Also, we don’t currently have any way of separating out our water heating from our central heating, and our gas fire from the boiler.

Of course, what really matters overall is the total amount of energy we use (that is, the gas and electricity numbers combined). So I’ve made a graph of that too. Now we’re talking numbers like 48 kWh per day in 2005 to 33 kWh per day in 2011.

 

Graph of total daily energy usage per year.

Overall, that means we reduced our total energy usage by about one-third over seven years.


Thanks again to @andysc for helping create the graph from meter readings on irregular dates.