The Social Internet of Things

When the Forest Calls the Fire Department


04 Apr 2016 | Angela Ullrich | Social Entrepreneurship

The next great Internet revolution is just around the corner and ready to conquer our refrigerators, flush toilets, and cars. It is the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) – a network of physical objects that allows devices and machines to communicate directly with each other and that renders many everyday processes fully automatic, without requiring human intervention. It makes us somehow uneasy, but it also offers enormous opportunities.

IoT solutions can be applied in many different fields, ranging from smart industrial applications to agricultural optimization to the intelligent planning of cities, health services, energy consumption or environmental protection. The current media hype around IoT is strongly driven by the latent economic power of this innovation. One important branch are so-called “wearables” – small computer systems that are worn on the body and that collect and transmit information about the user’s pulse, body temperature, movements, etc. The market for these devices – such as, for example, Apple Watch – is rising by several million euros of turn-over every year. In the agricultural industry, too, where machine-to-machine connectivity and crop optimization translate into big gains in efficiency, the market volume in the United States is currently estimated at 1.3 billion US dollars.

For more information about IoT and the complete trendradar 2016, go to:

From a nonprofit perspective, however, we are mainly interested in IoT solutions that have a social impact, a social benefit, especially for less privileged people. In our view, human beings should be the most important beneficiaries of machine-to-machine communication and action. Here, too, there is a wide range of possible applications. Since we want to demonstrate the trend by using concrete examples, let’s take a look at solutions and approaches in the fields of environmental protection and disaster prevention.

Caught in the net: sensors communicate water quality

With the aid of innovative sensors that are placed directly in bodies of water, it is possible to continually measure and communicate the water quality as well as changes in water quality, so that remedial measures can be taken quickly. The Water Innovation & Research Centre at the University of Bath has developed a low-cost sensor that uses bacteria cultures to measure the presence of toxins and pollutants in the drinking water and sends an alert in the case of emergency. A robust Smart Water Platform made by Libelium also provides detailed information about water quality and is particularly suited for deployment in hard-to-access locations or rugged environments.

Always up to date: water levels in real time

Water levels, too, can be measured and communicated by sensors. In the future, many wells may be equipped with affordable measuring devices, so that people do not have to walk for kilometers in vain, but can be notified electronically in advance. In addition, the people and nonprofit organizations funding the wells’ construction would receive transparent information about whether their donation is being put to effective use.

In New York, the “Don’t flush me” project seeks to help reduce the amount of pollution of the inner-city water canals with the aid of an IoT application. Every time the sewage levels – measured by sensor – exceed a critical height, local residents are alerted to temporarily reduce or suspend their wastewater production.

Disaster warnings

Sensors cannot prevent disasters, but they can help early detection in order to get people out of harm’s way in time. In Spain, for example, Libelium sensors help detect forest fires and floodings. Attached to trees, the sensors measure parameters (temperature, humidity, CO2 and CO levels) that change during forest fires. If the combination of parameters shows any abnormality, the fire department is notified immediately. The sensors also deliver the GPS coordinates so that the firefighters are able to locate the fire. Similarly, sensors in rivers or dams can measure water levels and movements and communicate them once they reach a critical point.

Several years ago, Rio de Janeiro was hit by a terrible storm that killed many people. In response, the city, in cooperation with IBM Smarter Cities, launched the Rio Operations Center. Monitoring stations collect data on water supply, the electricity grid, weather, and traffic and send the information directly to the center.

In the case of an emergency – which can range from traffic obstructions to major storms – the Operations Center, via Twitter, notifies its more than 50,000 followers and sends out text messages or e-mail alerts.


Our world is growing more connected by the day. The Internet of Things offers designers, developers, and entrepreneurs plenty of opportunities to develop unprecedented products and applications. And remember that we are only at the beginning. Many examples, including those mentioned here, still require a human being who coordinates the transmitted data for further use. Only when devices and machines initiate or execute actions without human intervention, the Internet of Things is, by definition, fully developed.

While this sounds promising for some, the process also raises many questions about how we want to meet these new, still unknown challenges. This skepticism applies especially, though not only, to the social sector, whose main beneficiaries are to be weak and disadvantaged population groups. Can and should we cede the responsibility for their well-being entirely to data, algorithms, and machines?

Some experts working in the IoT field have therefore decided to draft a manifesto that serves as a code of conduct for themselves and others. Without claiming completeness and open for comments and further contributions, they commit themselves, for example, to develop only products that have a real benefit for mankind, that will result in a win for all stakeholders involved, and that meet certain safety and privacy standards.