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POWER > Web 2.0 > Social Media

Houses, Ferries, Mousetraps, Buses and Businesses—All Find Ways to Communicate Through Twitter


Illustration by Mike Right

Developing Solutions

Stanford-Clark was just 5 years old when, in 1971, he asked his father for a computer for Christmas. “Sadly, I didn’t get one,” he says. “But I did get a book about computers, which was enough to ignite my excitement about them.” Over the next few years, his passion for machines never waned, and when the first home computers came on the market in the early 1980s (e.g., the Radio Shack TRS 80 and the Apple II), he was drawn to them like a mouse to a tweeting trap. Soon, he’d taught himself to program. As a teenager, he got a summer job at Manchester University helping write software.

By that time, he knew his future was in computing. He essentially had two goals: One was to study computer science at a university, which he did; and the other was to work at IBM. As soon as he completed his doctorate in 1991, Stanford-Clark got a job in the IBM development lab in Hursley, U.K., and has worked there ever since. It was a few years after his hire that he played a part in bringing the Internet of Things to the world at large.

In 1998, Stanford-Clark was working on SCADA systems for oil and gas companies with business partner Arlen Nipper. The problem was that the sensors in the SCADA system all talked different languages, so it was difficult to write applications to communicate with them all. Stanford-Clark and Nipper devised a clever fix—a system that gave the sensors a kind of digital Esperanto to communicate with one another via networks like the Internet.

This was MQTT, a messaging system that could take information from the pipelines and send copies where that information needed to go. It helped solve one of the most vexing problems of the Internet of Things—how to interpret the massive amounts of data generated by sensors relaying information from their locations. MQTT smoothed the pathway between the talking machines and the listening humans and proved a major step toward a smarter planet. It also really helped Stanford-Clark with his pest control.

Enter Twitter

But a few years after Stanford-Clark outfitted his attic with smarter traps, the digital pathways between people began to increase exponentially by way of social media. Twitter in particular offered a super-efficient superhighway for passing information between people.

One day, Stanford-Clark was on his way home from the mainland to the Isle of Wight, thinking about these things, when he realized he could take the Internet of Things even further.

“It occurred to me that Twitter gave you two things,” Stanford-Clark says. “It gave you timeline of activity, and it also gave you the immediacy of direct messaging. And I realized it would be easy to build an MQTT-to-Twitter gateway, so that anything using MQTT could tweet.”

Stanford-Clark wrote the program on the 25-minute ferry ride, and when he got home, he installed it onto the embedded computer that collected data from his house. Suddenly all of the things in his house with sensors were on Twitter, telling him how much energy he was using, whether his lights were on, if the fountain was running and so on.

The Twittering house made international news and was, for many people, their first real glimpse of the Internet of Things and of the potential uses of the data that can be mined from the world around us. It was a clear indication of the power of what’s sometimes known as “ambient notification” or “pervasive messaging.”

Frank Bures is an award-winning writer based in Minneapolis, Minn., and the literary editor at Thirty Two Magazine.



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