Monday, August 10, 2015

Internet of Thinking: Beyond Clean Restrooms

Internet of Thinking: Beyond Clean Restrooms

Why would you want to connect a public washroom to the Internet? Is this nothing more than an overly complicated way to get the janitorial staff to do their jobs? After all, if they just check the paper towels every two hours like they are supposed to do, can’t we just move on to a more important subject?

Yes, using sensors to detect low stockage of paper products or soap products in public restrooms is pretty basic. It sounds rather mundane as an Internet of Thinking (IoTh) use case, doesn’t it? 

What if such application could do far more than help schedule tasks for the workforce? What if it could provide value well beyond the automation of an otherwise manual process?

Let me offer two examples of a different, more robust approach:

1. Pathogen detection: What if we use washroom sensors to detect pathogens, and report those findings to public safety organizations?  In New York City, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease has killed 10 and sickened more than 100. DNAinfo reported that “the city’s Health Department never inspected a South Bronx public school after a teacher there died of Legionnaires’ disease in April while hundreds of students were attending classes.”

Even better, what if the city had long ago installed sensors on the water towers suspected of being responsible for this outbreak?

2. Insurance compliance: What if operators could provide insurance carriers proof that restaurant staff are practicing good hygiene habits and following protocols? This could reduce insurance claims, allow top operators to save money on their insurance, and allow consumers to make better judgments about which restaurants to patronize.

Some might view this as an invasion of personal privacy, since the restroom experience is among the most private moments of our normal days. We need to decide whether the public good outweighs a modest intrusion on personal privacy.

The current focus of washroom Internet of Things initiatives is to enable efficiency in the servicing of commodity products that are dispensed in those locations. That’s not thinking big enough.

The same IoT infrastructure might also help us detect public health threats and drive down the costs of hygiene-related food service industry insurance.  And, all of this new capability can be brought to market “As A Service” – with the purveyor of the technologies unifying all of this into a neat package of defined services. The data collected, and correlated, is truly valuable. Think of a “command center” coordinating the monitoring of restroom quality and service availability as part of a broader public safety network.

There will be non-trivial cost to internet-enable such fringes of the information eco-system as restrooms.  If it’s a worthy thing to do, then there must be a social and/or economic case to be made. Efficiency in deploying janitorial staff won’t be a sufficient source of economic benefit. The thinking needs to be expansive around the return on investment in multiple dimensions.

Big opportunities come from thinking beyond the customary use cases … creating capabilities that do not exist today. They come from applying the Internet of Thinking logic.


Peter Allen has many years of operating experience as a top executive and strategic advisor for companies of all shapes and sizes, with focus on technology-enabled business services. He is now a Boston-based Managing Director at Alvarez & Marsal.


Image:  kokopinto/Flickr








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