Facing the IoT’s Greatest Challenge: Wringing Value from All that Data


Like Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery, Building Automation’s Open-Data Frontiersmen are Working Together to Overcome ‘Portage’ Problems.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, it was one thing for a President in Washington, DC, or a financier in New York to think about the riches and adventures that could be had by riding the continental waterways from St. Louis to the Pacific, but, it was quite another thing to jump in a boat and do it. Today, there is so much talk about the promise of the Internet of Things, yet it is quite another thing to build it and create value from it.

I’ve just put together a collection of articles chronicling what it takes to architect and deploy Buildings IoT workflows that are secure and that support data interoperability. To say that the work being done by the Project-Haystack membership is trailblazing seems an understatement, so I’m comparing it to the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Lewis & Clark’s 1805 “Portage” around the waterfalls of the Missouri River in Montana was the hardest part of the Corps of Discovery journey according to many of the journals. The crew had to figure out a way to move all their boats and supplies upstream above the falls so they could continue on to the mouth of the Columbia River. The captains foresaw that they would face challenges like this, and they had the right people along with them to implement land movement solutions. Data doesn’t flow obstacle-free in today’s multi-protocol world either. There are more than a few “Portage” problems in the type of Building IoT workflows that many dream to implement. The Project-Haystack tagging and transport methodology are the equivalent of the Corp’s highly valued carpentry and blacksmithing skills. It is these skills that got the Lewis & Clark expedition up and around those waterfalls, and it is data interoperability and the semantic web that will lead to breakthrough commercial building IoT apps.

The Lewis & Clark Corps survived and made it all the way to their camp near present-day Vancouver, WA, largely because they communicated with Native American tribes and fur trappers to glean what knowledge they could about the terrain ahead and they prepared for that. When I read or listen to conversations about Smart Buildings or the Internet of Things, and nothing is said about the issues of semantics, tagging and taxonomy, I sense that the speakers don’t know that they are approaching some very big waterfalls.

I recently attended a Smart Building meet-up organized by VLAB, the Bay Area Chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum which regularly brings together local tech entrepreneurs and members of the venture capital community. Noah Goldstein, a Director of Navigant Research, helped to organize and promote the event which he describes here. Realcomm’s Jim Young was the moderator. The panel discussion didn’t gloss over the difficulties that non-building-industry-native start-ups have had trying to survive these particular rapids. The one panelist from a large incumbent building controls company said: “Someone needs to be working on the ontology problem. We need a taxonomy. What we’ve got is peanut butter here, except nothing sticks.”  With this, he identified the semantics issue that the Project-Haystack community has been working on since 2011. However, as explained in this article about the general Semantic Web “Semantic web successes have generally been behind-the-scenes successes. They do not require the kind of political and financial capital that these other huge [i.e., Facebook, Uber, AirBnB, and other Silicon-Valley-type] initiatives do…” So the VLAB audience of entrepreneurs and VCs were probably not the right target for this call to action on the semantic web challenge. (I learned this and more in reading a piece about the ‘Bigger Picture’ by John Petze in Project-Haystack Connections.)

Project-Haystack was launched by members of the open Building Automation System (BAS) community that first recognized the need for standard semantic tagging and a naming taxonomy. But that doesn’t mean that their work toward better data interoperability cannot open the way for all adopters. As more solution developers, OEM’s and smart building designers and integrators join the open-source community and participate, the faster we will reach a semantic web that supports the entire industry. In a recent Realcomm Advisory, Jim Young listed his top two CRE (Corporate Real Estate) Tech observations: “There are a lot of new companies and good ideas. There are multiple sub-communities that do not communicate with each other.” To cite one of the lessons of the Lewis & Clark expedition one more time: address the challenge of communicating with those in-the-know first. Don’t forge ahead without knowing all you can about the perils. So the status quo Jim describes is not good enough. One goal of the new Project-Haystack Connections E-zine is that we communicate as well as we can about our community’s activities and progress in the build-out of our portion of the semantic web.

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