Intended for Internet of Things use cases in buildings, agriculture, energy and resource management and in smart cities, Flowthings pulls in data from HTTP, MQTT, APIs, Flowthings agents and WebSocket to process real-time events and then push decisions or actions out to mobile devices, enterprise machines or cloud-based apps.
“It has always been about the flow of data from things,” says Michael Kochanik, chief revenue officer at Flowthings, who demonstrated the platform at the recent O’Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco. “Before IoT was a thing, we had been building in the real-time streaming space. For example, for CBS broadcasters, we are the entire back end-as-a-service for CBS Local.”
Kochanik says Flowthings enables CBS to process thousands of data feeds based on news sources and content filters and the end customer’s location, device and interests in order to serve up the most appropriate CBS Local contact to each individual user, in real time. “All CBS does is call our APIs and we deal with how that works out,” he says.
Kochanik gives another TV example, explaining that Flowthings has one process flow that uses sensors to monitor the error rates of TV set-top boxes, and when malfunctions surpass a 3% error rate, the box itself schedules a service call, connects with the customer’s address data and the technician’s availability, then manages the timing of the service call with the customer. “It’s all done with our API,” says Kochanik.
While Flowthings is seeking to appeal to the agriculture, buildings management and energy sectors, Kochanik is hopeful that cities will see an opportunity to implement the platform for managing smart city infrastructure.
To this end, the company has designed a business model with a focus on a quick return on investment for any cities investing in the infrastructure and, after a recent hackathon in Dubrovnik, Croatia, is hopeful to have cities come on board.
“It is a deterministic business case; we work with a proven revenue-generating model,” says Kochanik. For example, Flowthings encourages cities to first apply the real-time event processing to smart parking, where optimized parking means greater fee generation and an immediate ROI. A second use case is managing the heating, ventilation and air conditioning of a city authority's buildings and community facilities. Flowthings wants to be able to help use building energy management data and predictive analytics processing to create a 10% savings for cities deploying the infrastructure. The third "low-hanging fruit" is smart lighting, where Kochanik says that LED lamps pay for themselves in eight to 10 months from the energy savings alone, not to mention the improvements that can be generated through greater control of energy usage by using lights that can be managed remotely or automatically.
“Build it, prime it, sustain and grow,” Kochanik says is the mission in working with cities.
Kochanik is quick to recognize that one of the bottlenecks for taking up Flowthings’ potential may be the lack of data flowing into its system. While it has protocols for MQTT, WebSocket, API integration and its own device agent, cities still need to have in place infrastructure that can collect and feed real-time data through one of these protocols. To that end, Flowthings is working with a number of partners to increase the likelihood that cities will have an existing infrastructure service — such as sensors from Link Labs, Senaya or Asset Mapping — to feed in data for the real-time processing.
“I was involved in data.gov, and I know these things fail if developers can’t get access to the data they need,” says Kochanik.
Flowthings has a long road ahead if it wants to be able to convince cities to deploy its platform for managing real-time data processing. Another use case Kochanik suggests is real-time bike rental data so that cities can optimize the flow of reloading and moving bikes at key stops across the city. In theory, the Flowthings platform can enable cities to optimize their rental bike systems, but apart from a novel case by a predictive analytics company in France, most cities are not yet applying real-time and big data to infrastructure in this way. In the United States, little discussion is occurring to generate solutions for the key challenge of aging city infrastructure as yet.
The fact that this is a proprietary platform and not open source is also a barrier to uptake and may be a deal-breaker for many cities that are investigating real-time sensor data processing platforms like Flowthings. Flowthings may well need to look at the likes of VIMOC Technologies for some guidance in how to enter this market. VIMOC has taken an open source approach to its data sensor architecture and is first entering a hardware space so that it can deploy the sensors (although pivoting to work solely on the data processing is part of its longer-term plan). Flowthings could take a similar approach by rolling out sensors with its partners and opening up its platform so cities are not worried about lock-in.
VIMOC has also been known to identify a local business or industry leader and work with it to offer its infrastructure. Those partners have in turn leveraged their relationships with the city authorities to create a business opportunity for VIMOC. In Newcastle, Australia, VIMOC started by offering its services to the local business traders association, which then lobbied the city authority saying, “We need this.”
Building smart city products is a long-term game, with half-years generally marking the time for onboarding a new customer, not the months, weeks or even days that an API provider may be used to seeing for customer acquisition. With Flowthings’ product and experience, it's confident it can wait until the market is ready and it has the tech and the strategy to prove it.