Twitter is no longer just about connecting people to one another but about connecting machines to machines
If you want to announce something publicly to the world, Twitter is usually the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to do it. Whether you’re an individual or a company, posting a Twitter update ensures that anybody with any interest in what you’re doing will have instant access to that information.
However, it is no longer just individuals and companies that are using Twitter to broadcast what they are doing – machines are doing it too, and thanks to the public nature of tweets, this information can be used to drive a whole new range of ‘internet of things’ applications.
According to Andy Piper, developer advocate at Twitter, people have been putting inanimate objects onto Twitter since the early days; the first plant sensors were given their own Twitter accounts in 2008, allowing them to tweet that they were thirsty and needed watering.
Piper said that Twitter’s open API (application programming interface) allows anyone to write an app to record data from sensors in buildings or public spaces and translate that data into ‘tweet’ form so that it can be posted onto Twitter.
The launch of Twitter’s Fabric mobile development platform this week, should make creating these apps easier than ever, and with analysts at IDC predicting that the internet of things market will grow by more than $5 trillion over the next six years, there is a strong incentive for developers to get involved.
One of the exhibits on show at the Twitter Flight event in San Francisco was a drone that could be flown by issuing instructions via tweet. The developer who had created the mobile app to control the drone had built it using Fabric in a single weekend.
There are also a number of Twitter-connected ornaments that light up or change colour every time the owner is mentioned in a tweet. Piper said this was a great way of surfacing data from Twitter in a physical form.
However, the potential for Twitter information to be used in all manner of ‘internet of things’ applications is much greater, according to Piper.
He gave the example of last Winter’s flash floods in the UK, which prompted demand for a better early warning system. As a result, the Environment Agency worked with a third party to connect every river sensor in the UK (between 2,800 and 3,000 sensors) to Twitter .
“When I first heard that I thought, this is ridiculous, we don’t want that many new Twitter accounts telling you the river level – what’s the value?” said Piper.
“But then I realised that, if I live in Kingston, I don’t want to know what the whole of the Thames is doing; I want to know what the river in Kingston is doing. So now I can subscribe on Twitter to the two river points that are closest to my home, and keep an eye on what the levels are.”
Piper said that this kind of information can sit alongside updates from friends, family and celebrities you might follow, adding a new dimension to your Twitter feed. It could also be fed into other internet of things applications to make them more responsive.
For example, a stream of Twitter data from a weather vane could be fed into an app that controls a smart heating system, telling it to adjust the temperature in the house according to the weather outside.
Although some internet of things devices like Google’s Nest and British Gas’ Hive are already capable of integrating with third party apps in this way, they are closed ecosystems, according to Piper, whereas Twitter remains open.
“The internet of things for me is about making it really easy to integrate all of those things and objects that are relevant to my environment and my life, and I think Twitter is a core part of that,” he said.” It has been for a long time, it just hasn’t always been thought of in that sense.”