Studying the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) on local communities with Sarah Kiden

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About the guest

Sarah Kiden is a researcher and technologist studying the impact of Internet of Things (IoT) technology on local communities. She is part of the OpenDoTT PhD programme from Northumbria University and Mozilla exploring how to build a more open, secure, and trustworthy Internet of Things. Prior to this Sarah was based at Research ICT Africa looking at broadband performance and internet measurements across Africa.

Donation choice

Each guest is asked to nominate an open source project or charity for donations for their episode. Sarah has chosen the Gate Church Carbon Saving Project in Dundee which runs the community fridge she volunteered with as part of her OpenDoTT research.

OpenDoTT IoT research programme

Internet measurements project – Research ICT Africa

Data sources used

Presentations and findings

Transcript

Sarah Kiden: I think let me start by saying open dot which is the open design of trusted things is a European Union funded project and it’s a joint PhD program between Northumbria University Newcastle and Mozilla exploring how to build a more open secure and trustworthy internet of things so the project started at the University of Dundee in July 2019 on first of July 2019 and we moved to Northumbria at the start of June 2020.

There are currently five fellows on the project working on topics ranging from wearables to smart homes, smart cities, trust mark for the internet of things and I am particularly focusing on communities and neighbourhoods.

When I say communities I mean is that in particular places in the world or is that what does that mean so particularly for my topic I’m looking at internet of things like currently when you look at IoT technology it’s being discussed at small scale for an individual or at large scale for a city and yet there’s a possibility for it to work in spaces we share with other people in our small communities. So I’m looking at shared objects or shared places or things that we share as people living in one geographical location and the other thing is for my PhD particularly, I’m looking at doing a comparative study because I’m not from the UK and I’m interested in finding out how an IoT community project would work in the UK but also how it would work in another place for example in a village in Kampala in Uganda or in Kenya or in another country in Africa.

James Mullarkey: So, you’re looking at a UK context versus for example over in Uganda. I would not even know where to start if you were going to say right involve a local community in developing an IoT project I wouldn’t have a clue where do you start?

Sarah Kiden: Okay so if I can say that I’m trying to explore possibilities for smaller scale local IoT technology and how communities can be supported in making the best use of them and as a starting point for my project I’m doing research around community initiatives and activities and understanding them with an aim of identifying and then testing ways in which IoT can support community infrastructure

I started with the Dundee west end community fridge which is an initiative of the gate church carbon 7 project its own path road in Dundee basically I’m trying to understand what happens in and around that initiative trying to understand the back end and how this community initiative is supported and also to get a better understanding I opted to volunteer at the fridge as well so the initiative basically if you think about the fridge in your house a community fridge is the same as the fridge in your house but this one is located in a public location uh the one in Dundee particularly is located in a car park where people can come and get surplus food from food businesses from supermarkets that food that would otherwise have gone to west the community fridge gives this food to people in the community for free so I’m trying to understand how this initiative works and I’ve conducted a few interviews with the project coordinator with some volunteers one other community fridge based in and some similar initiatives in other countries and also the habab network which is a network of community fridges in the UK so based on this data I am looking for insights so that I can come up with ideas that I will show my research participants so that together we can find possible solutions for the community and so far I’ve tried to think about a few things which I can share maybe in two weeks but I’m just looking for ways in which the community can contribute to actually developing their own IoT initiative I hope that answers the question.

James Mullarkey: So, this is a fridge you were looking at a community fridge in a car park people can come and take food surplus food that sounds great. Is it a smart fridge then and does it understand what’s inside the fridge and what’s been taken out?

Sarah Kiden: That’s what I expected like when I heard about the community fridge. I expected that it was going to be a smart fridge and things like that but it’s actually just an ordinary fridge. So, it’s not smart. I thought it would be able to do certain things like you know track what’s coming in and out but it’s just an ordinary fridge. I don’t know if that was the decision by the project or if this is what was available to them at the time but currently, it’s just an ordinary fridge.

James Mullarkey: Is that part of what you’re looking at is maybe that that’s something that’s brought in further down the line is that there are smart elements brought into the project?

Sarah Kiden: Yes so the first thing is I’ve tried to read a little bit about smart fridges and I’ve seen that the ones on the market currently are mostly personal smart fridges with varying amount of smartness so  they have like different smart fridges have different features that make them smart but I’ve not seen anything that can be used at a scale or a level like the one at the community fridge and that’s what I’m trying to look at.

I’m trying to look at things like for example the project is about food waste so they’re trying to ensure that food doesn’t go to waste but you find that sometimes you still have food that will come in and it may overstay it doesn’t happen all the time but you still have like food will come in and it will still go past the use by date.

I’m trying to understand this and see there are some kinds of small solutions that we can introduce that can help us to actually save this food from going to waste but also to just make it easier for the project coordinator for the volunteers or whoever is managing the project to show you that okay we received this food on this date and this is when we wanted to go out and things like that. So I’ve looked at things around making the fridge smart but also just helping other things making the notice board more usable because currently there are two notice boards. A small one that basically says we’re open from this time to this time and you can check this number of items in a day and a bigger one that I’ve seen people are using to put other notices for like during the COVID-19 pandemic they are basically saying if you need help with this please call this number or things like that.

So how can we make such um noticeable this is just an idea how can we make it more usable or more functional for the community fridge or things around how can they scale the because when the things come in they are weighed and then put into the fridge so trying to look around issues of how can we make this skill more useful so that it’s not very manual and just different ideas around the fridge so they’re not like they’re still at idea phase and I plan to share this with the people who participated in the research so that they can tell me or we can collaboratively or together look at what we think is more feasible and then take that forward for the next part of the project.

James Mullarkey: To me, it would seem that one of the areas where the smart aspect might be quite useful would be with the use-by dates on the food. So, if there was an inventory of what’s going into the fridge and the use-by date of the food, then you could for example, give instructions to the volunteer to where they should position the food in the fridge. So, the stuff that’s going to go off first is at the front and then at a particular height. But also, it could alert volunteers that this has now gone off and you need to remove it.

Sarah Kiden: Yeah, that’s actually the exact kind of stuff that we need to be looking at.

So how much waste is there? I guess a lot of this food is near the point of going off already. So I’ve personally been volunteering since March till now but I think from the time I’ve been volunteering I’ve seen about maybe four times in total where we’ve seen that bread has overstayed or something or maybe like what you were talking about, the things are placed at the back and so the volunteers will not necessarily see it and give out other things instead. But most of the things that come into the fridge actually go into the community. So, for me, the first thing that t really surprised that all the food that comes into the fridge was actually going to waste.

Before there was an initiative like this but also to see that the community has really embraced this initiative and there are so many volunteers who are coming from different parts of the city and they just want to help with the initiative and the volunteers are there because before the pandemics the fridge was unmanned so anyone would come in at whatever time and collect what they wanted to use. But during the pandemic of course with all the restrictions and you don’t want people touching everything and going to the fridge.

A volunteer has to help tell the people who are coming to the fridge this is what we have, and this is what you should check out, so it’s been interesting to know that like all this food was going to waste. But at least it’s going somewhere. I’ve seen a few instances but it’s not very common that the food goes to waste.

James Mullarkey: It actually sounds like it’s pretty efficient and I guess the thing that always I have in the back of my mind with smart technology and the internet of things is always I’m thinking about what the surveillance angle is because I guess a lot of internet of things devices seem to me like they might have been created first as a means of gathering data and second as whatever their apparent use. But I’d say a community fridge, that’s in a public space, unless it’s got a camera and facial recognition built into it, which I guess would probably be unlikely it would seem it would seem difficult to surveil people?

Sarah Kiden: So and there’s actually a camera at the current community fridge but I don’t think the project aims to use it for anything. Basically, it’s just to be able to know who is coming in there because there’s no the other thing. Actually, there’s no way for them to know who is actually coming in and going out but beyond that I don’t think uh they were planning for anything outside of that though. I must admit to you that I agree with you most of this technology is built fast to make profit and then later quote-unquote to solve a problem. So, I think we also don’t know what happens behind the scenes. Basically, you’re putting it there for a different purpose, but the manufacturer has back door access to the data so that’s a totally different problem but yeah there’s that issue. 

You were talking about how it’s difficult to do surveillance at community level I don’t know if I agree or disagree but I feel that it’s the same devices that you’re using whether at personal scale or at community level so if surveillance is happening at personal level then I feel that surveillance is still happening at community level or at city level and so on.

I agree with that totally but I guess a smart fridge in my house smart fridge manufacturer they know who’s opening the fridge and taking things out and they’ve got a much clearer idea but I guess if you’ve got it in public space it does make it slightly trickier for their business model so if you come across other examples then of community-based smart tech which is surveilling people so I’ve not I don’t know if I’m looking in the right places or wrong places but to be honest I think it’s hard for me to find community IOT solutions I’ve struggled a little bit but I found other examples of technology ranging from community radios in both urban and rural areas to community networks which are among one of the favourite things I’m reading about right now so community networks are basically telecommunication infrastructure that is built and maintained by communities and you have stories of farmers and everyday people in rural areas helping each other to achieve a dream which is connectivity.

So I’ve seen examples in Uganda in Kenya and south Africa in Hawaii in Canada and even in the UK I think recently I read a story about a village just outside of Lancashire that uh built one of the fastest internet networks in the UK so I’m using such examples as my inspiration into community IoT and learning from these initiatives so what has worked for them what has failed what have they learnt about the governance model what kind of structures do they have in  place is it self-organized do they have like some sort of charity running these initiatives and then using that to see how we can use infrastructure building for community building.

James Mullarkey: OK so you looked at the smart fridge in and Dundee and that Lancashire project I’m definitely going to try and look that up that sounds very interesting but you’re also looking in other contexts you looked at some stuff in Uganda as well? 

Sarah Kiden: So I have a bit of an understanding of the act landscape or technology landscape in Uganda because I’ve worked there for a while and I’ve not seen like community IoT projects I’ve seen a lot of community projects I’ve seen a lot of technology projects um but I’ve not seen like community IoT in Uganda so it’s something that I’m trying to study and I’m trying to plan so if you have any suggestions of things I can look at your resources I’ll be happy.

James Mullarkey: Before you were on your PhD course you were on a Mozilla fellowship I think and it was at researching ICT I think that was based in South Africa yes I was really interested in this project as well I’m guessing there’s probably large parts of Africa which maybe don’t have consistent electricity supplies even mm-hmm so it’s it must be quite difficult to build networks in those areas so I’m actually really curious as well in terms of the existing infrastructure in across Africa like who’s building that is it is it telecommunication companies is there any is there any foreign influence in that are there foreign corporates coming over and trying to own it?

Sarah KIden: I think if I use the case of Uganda I’ve seen that there’s a lot of foreign influence. I’ve seen Facebook and Google you know trying to put fibre and like extending it to rural areas or places that are outside of the city centre. So there’s a lot of external influence though there’s also internal companies like the mobile service providers in the country also trying to do the same I think  when they were laying the Google fibre it was going to places where existing service providers did not even think that perhaps they thought that they don’t have to extend and for many of them it was about value for money.

Before the fellowship I was actually working at a University in the IT department and I remember for one of our campuses in Arua, in north western Uganda, we spent a very long time and we kept using like a satellite, a research dish for a really long time and this is not really long time ago because I left the job in 2017. For a very long time we tried to go to different service providers. But what they kept telling us is there are very few people in that place so if we invest so much money and check our network then we will still not make the money out of it.

I don’t know if you’ve heard about research and education networks? So, there was the research and educational network for Uganda (RENU) that basically it’s a consortium of research and universities in Uganda. They just came together and instead of buying bandwidth from the providers in the country they just buy it in bulk from an international provider. I think when research or an education network for Uganda came it was like really very helpful especially for universities research institutions uh higher institutions of learning. Now I think even secondary schools that were in places where ordinarily you would not have access to the internet so I think for me I’m really an advocate of institutions like RENU because they’ve helped to connect more people and if we could get these brands or research education networks to actually partner with other community organizations it would be very good to provide service.

In terms of electricity I think some places don’t have good access to electricity but some people are using other optional or alternative sources of power like using solar panels and other things to provide access to electricity. So they’ve partnered with different providers even within the country like I know RENU partners with liquid telecom to provide an alternative backup source in case you know there’s a problem they’ve partnered with c-squared which is actually I think a big shareholder like google has very big shares in c squared and they partnered with other organizations to be able to provide this connectivity to different universities secondary schools and research institutions.

James Mullarkey: On your project generally you looked at the broadband performance and the and some sort of internet measurements?

Sarah Kiden: Let me just start by saying research ICT Africa conduct multi-disciplinary research on digital governance, policy and regulations that facilitate evidence-based and informed policy making for improved access use and application of digital technologies. So it’s not just enough to say hey everyone is building their infrastructure so you should but instead of doing that you should provide evidence on why governments or regulators should invest.

My fellowship it was one of the most interesting things I’ve done and it was around broadband performance and internet measurements.

We were just trying to understand the state of internet connectivity in terms of coverage speed numbers people connected latency content hosting there’s like a wide range of things and these were forming part of the country reports that RIA was doing. They were writing ICT assessment reports and our research was actually feeding into that so we were doing it from both our demand side and our supply side. So demand side is the side of the end users and supply side is the mobile or internet service providers and then trying to have some sort of comparison to see if users were getting what suppliers were telling them from the demand side.

We used data that was given to us by speed checker Netradar mobile analytics and Ripe NCC and from the supply side it was mostly from the regulators and the regulators of course get it from their respective mobile or internet service providers and we also used the GSMA which is the global systems for mobile communications database. Among the things we were looking at were things like country level latencies or that’s the delay before when you send an internet packet the delay that happens we’re looking at that country level and also looking at it in terms of delay to other continents like Latin America, North America and Europe.

For other places like Europe and North America was like 45 milliseconds and 30 milliseconds. What that basically means that it’s faster to send an internet packet from a country in Africa to another country in North America or Europe than it is to send within countries in Africa.

In terms of upstream providers like a lot of maybe like over 30 percent of the traceroute samples showed that there’s at least one hop outside of Africa. That basically means when you’re sending an internet packet it will go it will go out of the continent and return into the continent even if sometimes you’re sending it within the same country. That definitely increases delays and in terms of throughput which is the amount of like items passing through a particular system or a process.

We used mainly speed checker and Netradar and had data from about 46 African countries and we noted that generally between 2014 and 2018 there was an increase in speed like speeds have really improved in the last five years and the delays have gone down for the same period. We also tried to cluster the countries using the African union categorization so east, west, north, south and central and even if there was a general improvement in terms of speed across the continent some regions really improved faster than others. For the western region, western Africa you found that mostly there was improvement but it was really slight yet like east Africa and north Africa we just had much higher speeds.

Then we went a little bit further than this and we were looking at it per quarter to see like how has the improvement happened in different quarters in a year and even had a deep dive in particular countries like Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria to really understand what was happening.

I think there was one interesting case in in west Africa of Liberia like we’re just seeing like very high speeds from Liberia and we’re like how come Liberia is the only country that’s really registering very high speeds but then we when we dug a little bit further we discovered that the USAID which is the American uh agency for development had actually invested a lot in infrastructure in the past maybe four or five years and that’s why like it almost felt like an outlier in the in the western African region but we observed many other things

For example when we looked at supply side data from the regulators, a lot of the service providers were reporting that we are giving people 4G and yet when you saw the data that’s coming from network and speed checker you realize that most people actually were on 3G and not necessarily 4G.

Something that really stood out for me is that generally a lot of governments who are investing more in terms of ICT infrastructure so different kinds of infrastructure. But it felt like the investments were not directly translating into improved speeds necessarily or things like that I don’t know if I’m saying too much but we also checked things like rural versus at urban performance and Netradar is very nice, it gives you the ability to actually see this visually on a map. tI would show you very strong points in urban areas but as you moved out of the city then the signal got weaker and weaker and weaker.

Then as we moved again to another urban centre it would become stronger and finally we looked at the geolocation of African news websites so remember I had mentioned that in country to country delays within Africa, were really high compared to like African country to another country not America in Europe? We discovered that most of the African news websites we could have tested something else but we decided to go with African news websites and most of them I think majority of the news websites were hosting their content mostly in North America followed by Europe, and of course this was it had like a huge impact on the kinds of speeds that people were getting and we made a few policy recommendations that we can talk about maybe.

James Mullarkey: So, the news is all stored in another country? That’s a bit of a slightly depressing conclusion. When you were talking about the latency you were saying that if you were sending data to someone in Africa it was going to leave the continent and come back?

Sarah Kiden: Yes so what we saw from the trace route test that we tried, is you would see that I don’t know if you run a trace route but you’ll see that there are hops. It will show you different hops and for a lot of the cases at least one of the hops was out of the continent and that’s why one of the recommendations we made was that we were trying to encourage more posting of content locally or bringing content closer to the intended end users instead of posting it very far away from them. That’s increasing the amount of time or the delays but also increasing the cost because if it’s going out of the continent and back into the continent it costs more than if it was just hosted locally.

James Mullarkey: Well and then and the environmental impact as well of that enormous trip of what could be quite a comparatively smaller trip. I guess the big question I really wanted to ask you was about communities having a voice in developing technology?

That might be in many of the things we’ve talked about might be internet of things devices. It might be in some of these local networks that people are building. What is best practice of involving communities in developing technology?

Sarah Kiden: I think we’ve started to see that people are now advocating for change. I think in the last three to four years I’ve seen a lot of advocacy or campaigns and it’s not just organisations its organisations, community groups, researchers, end users individuals and so on. People are starting to make their voice heard and we are also beginning to see change

One of my favourite researchers whose work I feel has had a huge impact is Joy Buolamwini – hope I said her name right, who has done extensive research on algorithms and facial recognition software and recently. We’ve seen that companies like IBM, Microsoft and Amazon have backed down either by saying they will not be selling facial recognition software or at least they’ll be pausing sales for a while.

Even if it’s slow I think that people are slowly becoming aware about different tech issues and how they affect them. So if we get more people involved and if we get people aware about these issues things will change. Personally I feel that we need assist and people who advocate for change on the design table and vice versa. So designers are hearing what is happening on the ground or they’re actually coming from the ground and not just someone sitting somewhere in Silicon Valley and deciding that or parachuting into a village in Kenya or in Uganda in South Sudan and saying oh now you see I spent three to five days in this place and I think this is going to change so like having a seat at the design table and then advocate.

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This podcast series looks at the maverick renegades of the internet who are pushing back against big tech monopolies, surveillance capitalism and climate change. People who reject mainstream technology narratives to try and forge a slightly better, less dystopian future for all of us.