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3 Questions on Using Sensors and the Internet of Things for Global Development


The Posner Center for International Development convened a Denver Tech Salon earlier in April to host a conversation on Sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT). The lead discussants were:

Lively discussion was not hard to come by in the gathering that brought together Denver- and Boulder-area international development organizations, tech companies, lawyers, academics, and students. Early on, the question of what the IoT actually is sparked debate as participants shared their definition of the IoT and their vision for how it could be expanded to the developing world and emerging market economies.

While all in attendance agreed on the immense power and potential of the IoT within the international development sphere, the conversation quickly turned the ethical issues inherent to the act of introducing sensors into the communities within which our respective organizations work.

When a research group elects to embark upon a project that involves human subjects, it is standard practice for their proposed study to come before an Institutional Review Board for approval prior to its implementation. However, no such requirement exists for commercial enterprises that create products equipped with sensors for data collection.

Thus, the following questions were posed:

  1. Is it ethical to collect massive amounts of data on human behavior patterns without an analysis plan in place and without the explicit consent of the consumer?
  2. Do consumers agree to participate in these corporate “research projects” by virtue of having purchased the product?
  3. Do the companies producing these types of technologies have a responsibility to ensure that their consumer base is well-informed of the types of data collection they’re “consenting” to?

These and similar questions quickly became the focus of discussion, and, while the Tech Salon wasn’t able to answer them all, the level of engagement of those assembled made it clear that they were not raised in vain. As with any challenge in international development, there is no “one size fits all” solution, and the way we address these issues will necessarily evolve with technology.

However, by hosting conversations of this sort, we are moving one step closer to building a cadre of individuals ready to tackle these challenges head-on with the requisite compassion and thoughtfulness the international community deserves.

The Denver Tech Salon on IoT and Sensors sparked interest in some follow-up events, including having a Cryptoparty at the Posner Center for those interested in learning more about digital security and privacy as well as building bridges between Posner Center members and international development groups to the tech scene in Denver, including a variety of IoT’s networks and Meetup groups.

By Kati Turner and Susan Abbott, Cross-Pollinate Consulting


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