The Internet of Things: Risks and Rewards of a Connected Future

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Listen to Lucy Bernholz, Robin Wilton, Sona Shah, and Amy Sample Ward discuss the current state of IoT among nonprofits and how it has sparked a new era of social impact.


The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the growing network of connected “things” — devices, vehicles, household appliances — that are able to store, transmit, and exchange data.

If you think IoT has nothing to do with your organization, think again. IoT is all around us — on our wrists, in our homes and offices, and throughout our cities and towns. Some forecasts anticipate as many as 100 billion connected IoT devices and a global economic impact of more than $11 trillion by 2025.

As this new frontier of connected technology permeates every facet of how we live and work, IoT has the potential to drive social and economic progress in new ways. IoT development comes with a host of privacy and security risks that could wreak havoc on the social sector and reverse gains in public policy in the process.

Featured Speakers

  • LUCY BERNHOLZ
    Senior Research Scholar at Stanford PACS and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab
  • ROBIN WILTON
    Technical Outreach Director for Identity and Privacy at Internet Society
  • SONA SHAH
    CEO at Neopenda
  • AMY SAMPLE WARD
    CEO at Nonprofit Technology Network

Moderated by Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, the panel included:

  • Robin Wilton, Technical Outreach Director for Identity and Privacy at Internet Society;
  • Sona Shah, Chief Executive Officer at Neopenda; and
  • Amy Sample Ward, Chief Executive Officer at NTEN

Watch the discussion using the media player above, read the transcript, or listen by using the audio player below or by visiting the Digital Impact podcast on iTunes.


A few highlights:

  • We’re sharing our personal data like never before: The Internet of Things (IoT) has us interacting with the objects around us at a faster rate, what Robin Wilton of Internet Society describes as a “massive injection of fuel for that monetization engine that powers so much of what we experience on the internet,” adding that as this engine grows in size and power, it will be more challenging for individuals to preserve their own interests.
  • Data ethics will dictate what’s to come: Sona Shah of Neopenda sees concerns in the healthcare sector regarding the security and privacy of patient data. Following the law and respecting confidentiality are crucial to protecting those we serve. Beyond that, how can organizations use this technology to create something useful? For Shah, the opportunity with IoT, whether in the United States or abroad, “is endless.” But implementing it successfully, she says, will require some thought.
  • Implementing IoT is about more than placing sensors: Amy Sample Ward of NTEN says nonprofits shouldn’t look at IoT as something they need to manage end to end. Instead, both organizations and individuals should get involved on a community level. “You have a huge opportunity to be part of smart cities initiatives advocating for your community,” she says. “Your city wants to do something about transportation that impacts the people you serve…you should be part of that IoT conversation. You don’t have to then take on buying the sensors and placing the sensors and collecting the data.”
  • Don’t be blinded by instant gratification: Lucy Bernholz of the Digital Civil Society Lab says, “while the rewards may accrue quickly and immediately to individuals, the risks often come later and might be at a population level.” Bernholz asks how the social sector can begin to think about investing and operating in a world of connected things. “I think civil society writ large is woefully underprepared for this,” she says. “Partly because…there is no single sense of how we feel about our data being collected and used for whatever purposes. It’s just not clear.”
  • Technology is meant to serve: Robin Wilton talks about Internet Society’s IoT Trust Framework, which provides manufactures and consumers with a set of criteria to rate a product’s security, reliability, privacy, and protection, among other things. For Wilton, it’s a question of how nonprofits can make the technology work for them. “What you can potentially do with IoT is to make better informed selective use of resources,” he says. In other words, it’s not about the cost of using IoT, but rather making better use of the resources available and creating the benefit. Wilton looks to value-based design as one way to address the potential pitfalls of this new technology. “If you start with an immoral business model it doesn’t really matter how I think of your products,” he says. “I think we need to be prepared to challenge the fundamentals of projects, whether commercial or not, if we think they are setting off down an unethical path.”

Looking for more information? See these speaker-recommended resources:


Have thoughts or case studies on the current state of IoT among nonprofits? Leave a comment below and share on social with #InternetForImpact. Have an idea for a virtual roundtable? Tell us at hello@digitalimpact.org.

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