This Search Engine For The Internet Of Things Promises To Make Data More Meaningful To People

Umbrellium’s Usman Haque talks about Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of things that makes sense of devices and data and the conversations around them.

Indexing the Internet of Things (IoT)–the global network of items connected to the Internet which industry estimates suggest will reach a staggering 15 billion devices by 2015 and 50 billion by 2020–is the epic task one London-based company has set itself. The result, a search tool called Thingful, beta-launches in June.


Thingful is a search engine to show where data-emitting devices are located, what types of data they emit, and the online conversations that arise around them. It indexes different public IoT networks (anything from iceberg monitors to shark trackers, shipping information to local weather stations) with results then displayed on an interactive map into which users can input search terms.

Devices are displayed on a Thingful web page grouped into categories–such as transport, energy or home. Click through and the user can find out more information–such as who owns each device, and how and why they are used. Also detailed is any Twitter account associated with a particular device and any additional information provided by that device’s owner.

To date, Umbrellium has indexed several hundred thousand devices. “Our aim is to put people at the heart of the IoT,” Usman Haque, founding partner at Thingful’s developer, London technology and design specialist Umbrellium, explains. “The idea for Thingful was driven by the realization in 2013 that, though there was a growing data infrastructure for people to connect a growing array of devices gathering a broad range of data, there was no way for someone to find details of all the stuff that’s now out there in the public domain.”

Haque’s philosophy is simple: meaning is not inherent in data, but in the conversations people have around it. Most people have something that they are concerned about; some measure it–temperature for example, or air quality–and try to do things that might improve it, he explains. These people are not concerned with numbers per se but the implications changes in those numbers might have, and what action this could precipitate.

So Thingful’s interface has been designed around a map, because context seems to be the thing people are most interested in–examining and sharing data relating to their own neighborhood, for example. “People’s interest, for now, at least, is in devices in the real world measuring something happening in the real world to understand how it impacts on their own, personal surroundings and experience,” Haque says.

And enhancements now being added to the service–which Umbrellium has been trialling since late last year–include a discussion thread embedded into each page, a verification process to enable a device’s owner to “claim” their device, and the ability for Thingful users to embed a map, view, or device into their own web or blog page.


“Post-Fukushima in Japan, many ordinary people wanted to access and share data and communicate round that to discuss what was going on,” he continues. “That’s the social aspect of data which we hope to develop–a platform for interaction that goes beyond simply accessing a data set, but involves discussion to understand better what that data means.”

It’s all about discovery, control, and ownership–a first step towards the idea of ordinary people being able to have control over their own data.

“No-one yet knows what IoT business models will evolve, but all will have data at their core because that’s where the value lies,” Haque observes.

How much a particular set of data is worth, however, will depend on what it is, where it is from, who has collected it, how and why, he continues: “Our hope is that Thingful will provide discoverability, provenance, and an indication of quality, providing oil for the IoT machine.”

Umbrellium comprises a team of architects, designers, producers, and creative technologists interested in developing participatory products and services to enable people to interact and engage with cities.

The company’s previous projects include Marling, an initiative to create a spectacular live light show with shape and form dictated by the voices of the crowd below, and a mass-participation spectacle called Burble in which participants created an interactive inflatable structure to transform an urban skyline.


About the author

Meg Carter is a UK-based freelance journalist who has written widely on all aspects of branding, media, marketing & creativity for a wide range of outlets including The Independent, Financial Times and Guardian newspapers, New Media Age and Wired.