CCLP Hosts University-Wide Meeting on Internet of Things

François Bar, Geoffrey Cowan and Adam Clayton Powell III in discussion at the IoT lunch meeting.

On September 19, faculty from across the university gathered to discuss current research at USC related to the Internet of Things (IoT), and possible areas of collaboration.

In two discussions over breakfast and lunch hosted by the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, USC professors and deans from the schools of engineering, public policy, social work, medicine, law, communications and journalism came together to discuss current IoT projects and brainstorm areas for continued exploration and ways to integrate IoT into university curricula.

IoT is defined as the “the network of physical objects or ‘things’ embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data.” In its 2015 report, the UN estimated there will be 25 billion “networked devices” by 2020.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias has identified IoT and cybersecurity as major opportunities for USC in the months and years ahead, and CCLP and Director of Washington Programs Adam Clayton Powell III formed a new IoT initiative this fall focused on emergency response. CCLP’s initiative is supported by Google’s Vint Cerf, the USC Office of the Provost, and four USC schools: the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, the USC Marshall School of Business, the USC Price School of Public Policy, and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

But in such a broad field, it can be difficult to find convergence.

CCLP Director Geoffrey Cowan and Director of Washington Programs Adam Clayton Powell III, who organized the meetings, emphasized that while a great deal is being invested in exploring IoT at USC, it’s rare that different departments are aware of the research being done by other schools.

“People are working on all these problems but they’re not always talking to each other,” Cowan said. “One of our roles isn’t just to solve the problems but to connect the people who are working on these in such a way that they can be solved.”

Andrea Hollingshead, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Research at the Annenberg School, said it’s important to bring together “hard IoT” practitioners such as engineers and computer scientists with “soft IoT” practitioners focused on arts and humanities to explore the more human elements and the intersection of the two areas.

Some of that work is already being done. François Bar, an Associate Professor of Communication and Spatial Sciences, is researching ways in which IoT can be a part of urban furniture and neighborhood-based augmented reality tours.

Last year, Powell convened a series of meetings in Washington, D.C. with researchers, NGOs, industry leaders and policymakers to explore ways in which handheld devices can be enhanced for public service purposes, including emergency response. Discussions centered on the need for the Lifeline service to be enhanced to ensure all phones have access to emergency alert. These talks resulted in recommendations to the FCC. Powell said they hope this week’s meeting will lead to the creation of a similar emergency preparedness research group based at USC.  Powell said that emergency preparedness has a concrete application and value proposition, making it the ideal subject for further research.

The university is among a handful nationwide who are already integrating new technologies into public safety protocol. In the fall of 2014, the USC Department of Public Safety released the LiveSafe app, which allows people to report emergencies and send tips about safety hazards using text messages, photos and video. The future of crime reporting and response might go hand in hand with developments in IoT. Studies have shown people under 30 are more likely to report emergencies through apps and social media as opposed to calling 9-1-1.

Still, some sectors — medicine and social work, in particular — are taking a more cautious approach to the growing IoT field. Using IoT in medicine and health has important implications for prevention and treatment, but when dealing with patients, IoT and its implications are still very much unknown.

“It’s a balancing act between what the norm is and not pushing too hard so they can work together,” said Andrew Taylor, webmaster at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Cybersecurity is a topic of real concern, especially when increasing amounts of data are shared on open networks and evidence of hacking is constantly being uncovered. The law does not keep pace with technological developments, which is why it’s important to have the law school and legal professionals be part of the emerging conversations said Rebecca Lonergan, Associate Director of USC’s Legal Writing and Advocacy Programs who has previously worked at the US Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice.

But Neil Siegel, a professor at the Viterbi school of Engineering and the former vice president and chief technology officer of Northrop Grumman’s Information Systems sector, said he believes that laws and regulations put in place concerning privacy and cybersecurity will inhibit development.

“We will come up with great things and not be allowed to do them,” Siegel said at the IoT event.

While those at the meeting expressed interest in a cross-campus initiative on the potential impact of IoT on data ownership, identity management and participation systems, such a program will likely need to evolve into a Provost-level initiative if it is to reach the next stage.

In addition to the cross-disciplinary approach at an administrative level, Powell and Cowan emphasized the importance of integrating the interesting work done in IoT across the university into the curriculum for students in the form of new classes and interdisciplinary programs. They contend that such an approach is important for the future of IoT development.

Colin Maclay, executive director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, emphasized taking advantage of USC’s strategic location in Los Angeles and using Los Angeles as a “living lab and an innovation zone,” allowing students on campus to experiment with IoT.  

“Developers, civil society, companies, academics all have a vested interest in doing things that work together and are sustainable,” Maclay said. “Ultimately, what we’re asking is how to make these things work for us instead of against us.”