Sense-T: The Tasmanian Pioneer in “Smart”

Tasmania from space
By Trevor Clarke, Tech Research Asia co-founder and director

The who, what, where, and when

Sense-T is arguably the Australian pioneer in smart cities, except it covers an entire Island with multiple towns and cities, and is looking to expand beyond its own shores. Indeed, Sense-T is a unique economy-wide IoT strategy that entails a comprehensive and ambitious policy, technology and data-driven projects, and extensive collaboration between university departments, the CSIRO, government agencies, industry associations, commercial operators, and individual end users. It’s a $40m+ program established over five years ago that offers many lessons for others looking to pursue IoT-related projects and policies.

They How and Why: Phase One

The drivers for Sense-T were, and still are varied. To cut a potentially long history short, these include research goals set by the University of Tasmania (UTAS) and CSIRO, economic growth, individual prosperity on behalf of commercial operators, and more. Prior to launching phase one of the strategy there were extensive discussions with industry and farmers to find out what the issues were. Around the same time Sense-T was established as an organisation based out of UTAS and funding received from the Tasmanian state government and the Federal Government. IBM was engaged to help with the technology foundations and other relationships were formed with industry associations and providers, while researchers and scientists recruited.

There were four projects in phase one of the Sense-T project. These four projects showcase why Sense-T is better known for its agricultural and aquaculture efforts rather than its other work.

The first project was for pasture management. Internally, Sense-T developed a pasture predictor tool, which is used to optimise grain fertilisers and forecast future pasture growth. That project is still continuing today and is available free online for farmers. So far, they have had 1400 users of the online dashboard and 930 or so have used it multiple times to manage their pastures. The tool continues to undergo development work with new features being added as new data sets become available.

The second phase one project was in viticulture. Sense-T were trying to understand how to minimise disease for vineyards. That has now developed into a stage two project which is the “vitiapp” – an app for wine growers. It is being tested at the moment with industry as an alpha to see what industry needs. The app promises multiple functions including to predict when frost occurs. So farmers will be able to get up early in the morning and turn on their fans or other systems they have to mitigate losses against frost.

The third project was related to water management in catchments. This was using sensor technology to try and get real time information on water levels and health of the waterways. This is also continuing into stage two.

The fourth project attracted considerable media attention. It involved developing new sensor technology and are measuring Oyster heartbeats to try and understand their health. One of the biggest surprises for a lot of people is that Oysters have hearts. One aim of this project to also help industry with harvesting by providing early warning of when water quality was at optimal levels. This project was the precursor to the standing up of The Yield, a start-up which has received almost $1m in funding from the federal government along with a recent $2.5m investment from Bosch.

Phase Two + Three

In early 2015 Sense-T moved onto phase two. This is much more comprehensive but also less well known due to the hype around phase one. It still includes aquaculture and agriculture, but has extended into areas such as tourism and health, along with new financial services such as how to measure natural habitat capital in partnership with multiple financial services organisations including some from China. Phase two also includes using IoT approaches and data analytics in transport, freight, and logistics. There are 21 current projects and about another three being scoped out in the logistics lab. Sense-T will end up with 24 or 25 projects by the end of this year when phase two projects will need to be completed.

One notable project in phase two is “Pathways to Market”, a $8m project that aims to provide “digitally-backed provenance solutions to Tasmanian food exporters and their supply chains”. Or in other words, enabling people, including consumers, to know where food and ingredients come from by digital evidence.

At the end of 2016 the team will then prepare all the monitoring and evaluation the impact those projects have made. In early 2017 the program moves into phase three.

The Underlying Tech

There is a lot of infrastructure that underpins Sense-T, adopted solely for the project itself. IBM developed a lot of the data centre infrastructure that hosts the key data platform, which is housed at a UTAS facility.

Sensor technology is being deployed by various entities, with some of it being custom developed for Sense-T projects. However, now the organisation is building its own integrated manufacturing facility in Launceston to prototype different sensors. They will not be doing large manufacturing runs for wide-scale distribution of products, but will instead prototype them and test them in the field, refine them, and test them in the field again.

Network and broadband connectivity is provided by commercial operators and while the projects benefited from the roll out of the NBN, many black spots and challenges with connectivity remain.

Predominantly, Sense-T focuses on the data and science side of things along with establishing processes and collaborative relationships.

The data platform – or data hub – is the central part of what the organisation does. Effectively it is a repository for the data from all the various projects, which they also link with data from around 10 other organisations including BoM.

The real power in the data platform is the federation of data. This is the “big data” aspect, where data scientists and other interested parties can start to mash data together to identify patterns and correlations. For example, they might be able to use data from the smart farms to help with smart energy grids. That might also rely on some of the climate data. Some of the data from smart farms can help with freight and logistics also. It is the connection in the data that is potentially very powerful.

Importantly the organisation wants to have more “open data” on the platform. It strives as much as possible with participants in its projects to encourage them to open up their data, however, while acknowledging that there will be some data that is sensitive that remains private and confidential. All of this is eminently achievable on the data platform they have built. But the more open data they can have on there will enable Sense-T to have a better digital view of Tasmania.

Background data analytics is provided on the platform and there are currently about 38,000 data streams based on around 700 hundred million observations. Understandably, as the project progresses they are still collecting more data from new projects, including by encouraging organisations outside of Tasmania to provide their data and to use the platform.

As part of the projects and as a result of their experiences with the data platform, UTAS participants have written a privacy whitepaper. Sense-T’s director noted to TRA that “the data security and privacy are two factors that are very important to us as without that, people will lose faith and then it is hard to get the open data. At the moment I would say there are a handful of companies that would prefer to keep their data separate but as they start to see the benefits of having access to other data there will be a cascading effect where people start to do this”.

The organisation also focusses on providing easy-to-use visualisations and narratives of the data, instead of delivering spreadsheets. This has occurred to help with stimulating adoption among farmers, many of which have not used much technology or data on their farms previously. This has additionally resulted in extensive educational and change management programs along with the digitisation of manual processes on properties and between different stakeholders.

The Lessons

Sense-T continues to uncover lessons for any organisation approaching individual and economy-wide IoT-related projects. These include:

Collaboration is key, and this takes relationships and education. Sense-T has successfully forged cross-industry and government relationships, without which none of its projects could have gone ahead. However, this process is time intensive and requires strong evidence for persuading collaboration. Internal IT has a role to play in ensuring digitisation of processes and information to help this process. But in Sense-T’s view, you need an independent entity to bring everyone together.

Open and federated data is powerful. Having access to a rare commodity and a growing amount of it in an open and federated fashion is providing Sense-T with opportunities not available elsewhere. Although returns to date are arguably modest, the organisation and its backers have a resource that can be leveraged for significant further gains.

Participants need help understand data handling and providence. There remains a lack of education about what data is available, how it can be used, whether it can be trusted, and how secure or private it is among stakeholders in Tasmania. Do not underestimate the work required to educate participants or prospective collaborators.

Connectivity remains an issue. Although Sense-T benefitted from early work by NBN and other telecommunications providers, the organisation continues to suffer from black spots.

Being ambitious works. Having a program of works underway to achieve the vision of a connected and fully integrated ecosystem has allowed Sense-T to attract funding, attract people from around the world, attract considerable media exposure and positive branding, and given the state opportunities to do things others are only just starting to realise are possible.

Next Steps

Sense-T is now moving into the end of Phase Two and onto Phase Three of its strategy. This largely involves expanding the number of projects and volume/variety of data in Tasmania. Notably, however, it is also looking to expand to other locations and is actively working to get more people onto its data platform and use its analytics and research services. This case study is based off an interview with Dr Stephen Cahoon, Sense-T Director and Logistics Lab Director.