Dirk Pesch of Nimbus: ‘We all need to get better at managing data’

25 Mar 2016

Nimbus head Dr Dirk Pesch believes data could be one of the most vital resources of the 21st century, but we need to figure out how to manage it and unlock opportunities

As Dr Dirk Pesch, head of the Nimbus Centre in Cork sees it, we are in the eye of the perfect storm when it comes to data and our responsible use of what could be the most valuable resource of the 21st century.

Pesch, a graduate of Aachen University and the University of Strathclyde, has spent most of his career focused on the design and performance characterisation of algorithms, protocols and wireless network design and has more than 100 journal, book chapter and conference publications to his credit.

As we talk, we both agree we could be staring down a long road in terms of the Apple vs FBI argument about accessing encrypted data on an iPhone, for example. While he is certain it will eventually be resolved, Pesch said he fears it could have a paralysing effect in terms of the onset of the internet of things (IoT), and smart cities, buildings and cars relying on connected devices to relay data. It’s a Pandora’s box.

The Nimbus Centre for Embedded Systems Research at Cork Institute of Technology is in a class of its own when it comes to spearheading Ireland’s aspirations for a data-centric world.

Two years ago, Nimbus announced 27 new R&D jobs and the company is focused on opportunities in the area of the future of energy, smart cities, ICT efficiency and, ultimately, IoT.

In fact, Nimbus is the country’s largest dedicated centre focused on technology within IoT.

Just this week, the company was awarded €2m in funding as part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme focused on the future of energy consumption in Europe. Led by Dr Martin Klepal, the E2District project is a three-year research endeavour to develop cloud software, using a citizen engagement strategy to manage and support smart energy usage for sustainable district heating and cooling systems.

Pesch said that much of the Nimbus Centre’s work revolves around how data is delivered, creating data-driven applications, but the primary focus is IoT.

I point out to him that most IoT concepts aren’t exactly new – machine-to-machine (M2M) was telematics and IoT was distributed computing before the marketing people stuck their beaks in.

“You’re not entirely wrong. You could argue that cloud computing as a concept existed back in the days of mainframe computing from the 1970s,” said Pesch. “Cloud is just another form of centralised computing, albeit with virtualisation being a key aspect of infrastructure.

“We’ve had M2M since the late 1980s, so that’s not necessarily new, and most cars for the last decade have had telemetric and remote sensing. But what is new is that we are looking at running all of this over a unified network that uses internet protocols.

“This offers us a massive opportunity to join all of these different technologies and unify them into big data applications.”

Pesch explained that Nimbus was formed in 2009 to bring together all the various research initiatives by PhDs working with industry and see if research outcomes could be commercialised.

“We are a living laboratory and testbed. This is how Nimbus came into being, bringing related complementary activities together, such as electrical engineering and sustainable energy environmental engineering.

“One of the areas we are most active in is smart energy efficient buildings using IoT to enhance the building environment, creating the sensing platforms and tools to design, plan and deploy systems.

“If you are a facilities manager of an office building, how do you decide if you want to improve the ambience, heating, control and air quality, what kind of new technologies can you deploy that connect to the internet?

“We are working also in the area of IoT to identify future learning environments,” Pesch said, pointing to start-ups that have grown out of Nimbus such as TipTapTap, which has created touch-sensitive tables for school kids that can also be used in assisted living applications for the elderly.

Another example is Showguider, a company that is using IoT sensors to help localise people in buildings or at events like trade shows.

Data privacy in a world of internet things

Returning to our earlier point about the future of data and security hinging on the outcome of the current Apple/FBI impasse about encrypted iPhones, Pesch said the privacy implications of IoT need to be understood.

He said Nimbus has PhD students focused on the areas of IoT and security and a number of initiatives in the area are underway.

‘The Apple case is quite specific and will work out one way or another, it doesn’t worry me too much. But in the context of the internet of things it is of huge concern’

“We are all citizens, no matter what devices we work on. We are still people and we look at this with some concern.

“The Apple case is quite specific and will work out one way or another, it doesn’t worry me too much. But in the context of the internet of things, it is of huge concern.

“Security is one aspect, but for privacy in a world of actuators and sensors, we need to make systems secure.

“Hackers can cause huge damage to infrastructure. We are augmenting existing infrastructure in terms of smart grids, smart cars and more, but if a hacker gets in and effects disorder, the damage that can be done could be enormous.”

Examples of the kind of chaos that could ensue are obvious in terms of the Stuxnet worm created by the CIA and Israel that was designed to take out an Iranian nuclear power plant but ended up sweeping its way around the world.

“We are already in a world where our smart TVs could be listening to us. If someone else can read your connected electricity meter wirelessly it wouldn’t take them long to figure out if a house is occupied or not. This has become a privacy issue.”

The irony is we live in a world where people freely offer up personal information in return for services. “We are in a place where the boundaries in terms of privacy are somewhat fluid and business models are being constructed around this free exchange of private information every day. It is definitely something to get concerned about,” warned Pesch.

Unlocking the innovation of IoT


Dr Dirk Pesch, head of Nimbus Centre at CIT. Photo: Darragh Kane

‘If you want to be promoted in academia you tend to focus on what gets you promoted, you may not always be incentivised to work in industry. That needs to change’

Pesch explained that a key aspect of Nimbus’ work involves working with industry to help organisations figure out what efficiencies they can glean from M2M and IoT.

It works with local IoT companies like Firmwave and large companies to tap into new opportunities.

“I think we need to support companies from the beginning in terms of working with academia. While there is a lot of strong state investment in Ireland in science and Enterprise Ireland has been investing in companies, existing companies are still very conservative about R&D on this side of the Atlantic.

“We need to be more proactive in terms of supporting companies, and working with academics is important.”

A key area that needs to be looked into, according to Pesch, is graduate recruitment by traditional companies that need R&D in order to help with the knowledge transfer process. “This mitigates risk for the company and, particularly for start-ups, any de-risking helps.

“Ireland is doing okay, but could be doing better for business R&D. We are still not near the OECD average and we are behind other countries.

“We are trying to be as flexible and multi-faceted in this space. We consider ourselves the go-to R&D department for some companies, whereby our staff will go into these companies and help them identify solutions.”

Pesch believes that while businesses need to be more open to this way of collaborating, there is still some work to be done on the academic front too.

“There could certainly be more flexibility on the academic side. The work of academics is often predicated on recognition and promotion through publication in science journals and so forth. If you want to be promoted in academia you tend to focus on what gets you promoted, you may not always be incentivised to work in industry. That needs to change.”

The devil is in the data

Pesch said he believes we are in a time of unprecedented access to data and the capabilities emerging on a daily basis are revolutionary.

“We can know from data if someone is likely to have a heart attack in the next five years or if, based on where someone lives, they are likely to go to college.

“But there is still a lack of open data. We have worked with Cork City Council, for example, on open data initiatives like parking data that helps make it easier for people to plan where to park.

“While that is progress, there is still a long way to go before we can open up open data and make it more productive and more fluid.”

Pesch said there needs to be a fresh debate about the opportunities if governments or businesses selected data sets that can be opened up to enable new services to emerge.

“We all need to get better at handling data and valuing data.

“But a lot of the data we need still sits in silos. We may deploy lots of sensors in the future but there is a lot of data that sits in silos and you can only get so much advantage from data from a FitBit. But add that to data from smartphones and environmental data and maybe we can use big data to identify if people are getting sick from an environmental impact,” he elaborated.

“Until we can find a way of preventing data sources from being isolated and getting them to work with IoT apps and sensors it is going to be problem,” he concluded.

“It will hinder the ability to create a smart application on top of IoT.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years