Quick guide: What is the IoT and how will charities benefit?

Our quick guide to the Internet of Things (IoT) for charities explains what an emerging ‘brave new world’ where everything is connected will mean for charities.

Paul Rubens | 3rd Oct 19

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a rapidly growing collection of everyday objects such as smartwatches, televisions, and refrigerators – as well as more specialised devices such as moisture sensors, thermometers, heart rate monitors and fuel gauges – which are all connected to the internet.

Since they are connected to the internet, these “things” can communicate with other things: they can collect information and share it, or they can receive information and act on it, or, in some cases, they can do both.

How will charities be able to benefit from the Internet of Things? Right now there’s a drive for charities to become data-driven, and the IoT can provide access to unprecedented amounts of highly relevant data collected by these things.

For example, in the near future medical sensors such as heart rate or blood sugar level monitors will likely provide charities with data enabling them to monitor the progress of their health initiatives, reinforce their arguments for the need for donations, and provide evidence of the effectiveness of both.

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The IoT will also provide new channels for donation campaigns, and ways for people to make donations. For example, an internet-connected fridge may have a screen which can display breaking news, such as an unfolding disaster, along with an appeal for help. An integrated biometric sensor in the screen could then allow anyone watching to make a donation with a simple fingerprint scan.

In fact charities don’t need to wait for the Internet of Things to proliferate further to start taking advantage of it. That’s because the IoT already comprises over 10 billion connected devices, and it is expected to grow to over 25 billion by the end of 2021, according to research house Gartner.


A world of new devices

One common type of IoT thing is the smart speaker, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home. Many charities such as the British Heart Foundation are using smart speakers already to take donations using voice recognition through the devices’ IoT-connected microphones.

Other IoT devices such as contactless payment points are also enabling charities such as Cancer Research UK to collect funds from passers-by who may not be carrying cash by simply tapping using a card, or another IoT device such as a smartwatch or phone.

Data collected from these devices can also help charities build up a digital “profile” of their typical donors.

Aside from using IoT devices to make and accept donations, some charities are already using them to collect data to further their data-driven ethos.

As an example, HabitatMap, a non-profit environmental health justice organisation, allows volunteers to turn their smartphones into environmental sensors to measure pollution in cities. The phone’s microphone can record noise pollution, which in combination with precise location data can be used to pinpoint pollution hotspots.

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On a more sophisticated level, Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), a charity that provides advice to households in fuel poverty, offers an IoT sensor kit which includes wireless humidity, temperature, electricity and gas sensors and an interactive app, which enables the charity to collect and analyse data to diagnose and mitigate fuel poverty issues such as damp, mould, cold homes, and unaffordable energy bills.

Of course any charity which uses data collected from the Internet of Things needs to be aware of the ethical issues which may arise from it. These include ensuring that people provide (informed) consent to their data being collected, that their privacy is protected, and that the data, or more likely the use of any data, cannot put anyone’s safety at risk.