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Life at the Edge

photo © whoisdanny/

photo © who is danny/Adobe

Being ‘at the edge’ has a new meaning in the digital world. Generally incomprehensible to the layman, confusing to even technical people. But suddenly there’s help available. A new device makes the concept completely understandable. To anyone.

Tech people love complicated things – and to brag about them. Rarely explaining, more often complicating the issues in an attempt to make it more impressive. I call it the ‘master of the universe syndrome’: Look at us, we’re really smart, we actually understand this stuff. Not productive at all – but I digress.

To most people, ‘digital’ is just a category – technical magic that makes stuff work. Which is OK. Just about anything related to digital, including ‘data’ is incomprehensible below the user interface. Actually, even the user interface is incomprehensible some times, but the reason is different: Bad design – by engineers without a clue about how to engage ‘normal’ people.

While bad design is unacceptable, the rest of the picture is (almost) fine: Most people are users, not developers or creators of technology. They don’t need to know how stuff works or whether it’s digital or not – with one notable exception: Personal data. Users need to understand what personal data is and why it’s important to care, but they don’t (as discussed in Who Owns the Data and Privacy? We don’t really care… ) because they don’t understand. How could they? We – those of us who do have the understanding (we are the masters of the universe, right?) – haven’t even tried, have we?

Actually, the wide adoption of ‘data’ as a term outside technical environments is unfortunate. How do you get a normal human being to understand that her score card, medical journal, Spotify songs and favorite movies are all data? We need to reclaim the concept of information vs. data which got lost somewhere in our digital transformation. Again, I digress … and here’s the point: We’re about to get help.

Edge computing has been around for a while. A technical term, and as such unimportant to most people. But these days, and as a consequence of the rapidly growing focus on protection of personal data, edge computing as a concept is becoming important to new groups, such as managers in general and C-level managers in particular. For the simple reason that edge computing, or more specifically, smart edge devices, are changing the way we use ‘personal data’ in a very positive way: Keeping the data local. Let me explain.

‘Edge’ in this context means ‘endpoint’ as in ‘where data originates’. Possibly the best example of an edge device is your cell phone. Regardless of where you are, your cell phone represents the edge of ‘your’ network. Also, and easy to understand for most, your phone has a lot of data about you. In this particular context, the concept of ‘personal data’ is understandable for most people. Pictures, passwords, bank-stuff, texts, emails, movements etc. “Of course it’s my data and of course it needs to be protected.” Which it is – to a certain degree, depending on the product and the services and apps you use. 

This understanding is important. It’s the beginning of understanding digital privacy and the span of datatypes our devices generate – about our lives. Since everyone has and use these devices, it’s easy to expand the understanding to the next level for those interested.

Which brings us to the subject at hand: Surveillance. It’s all over the place, it makes us uneasy at times, and we accept its importance for our own safety – or for someone else’s, or for property protection etc. Most people understand and accept that there must be a balance between privacy and surveillance.

It’s a delicate balance. For example, if you rent out your apartment via (say) AirBnB, you’d like to keep a tab on the renters’ behaviour – not because you’re nosy but because you have a reputation and a property to protect. You’re interested in noise levels, the number of people using the place, whether they’re smoking and other data. It’s not about individuals, it’s about situations – not ‘who’, but ‘what’ – under ‘your roof’. 

Obviously a privacy challenge. Where and how can you store and process which data in order to be in compliance with rules and regulations and still achieve the intended purpose? This is ‘life at the (digital) edge’, and this is where recent edge technology comes to the rescue. Devices such as the Minut ‘responder’ eliminates the privacy problem by processing the data right there – locally, in real time. Reporting (out-of-limit) situations, not behaviour. No personal data, no personally identifiable data, just the alarm and its reason. 

Minut looks like a smoke detector, acts like a sentry and doesn’t get you in trouble.

The magic – in technical terms – is local processing capability. The device, which looks like a smoke detector, has the smartness and the power to do the necessary processing locally. And has become the darling of services in the short-term rental sector. Along with competitors like VergeSense, InnerSpace and Density – all of which orient themselves toward office space monitoring.

This is evolution, not revolution, and while the technology and its benefits are fascinating, my main point is something else: Devices like this are excellent tools in educating ‘people’ – the rest of us – about being digital, about data and privacy. The purpose, abilities and privacy/surveillance challenges of the Minut device are easily comprehensible and become a shortcut to understanding. Of course there are many such examples, but this one stands out because it’s so easy to tell a story and turn it into a shared experience. About all-night ragers, neighbour complaints, property damage, over-populated apartments etc. (See also TechCrunch).

Try it – tell a story and focus on privacy and the avoidance of collecting and sending data. You’ll be surprised at the number of ‘aha’s’ you’ll get along the way. Understanding beats knowledge any time. Or – as expressed by Greek historian and general Thucydides 2.500 years ago: “Knowledge without understanding is useless.”

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