Trusting the data – what could possibly go wrong?

As I clung to the mast 90 feet above the heaving deck in the middle of the night, being subjected to the force 9 gale raging around me, I wondered what on earth possessed me to volunteer for this.

What has that statement got to do with technical data accuracy you may ask?

For some years I have been part of the volunteer crew for a 200-foot sailing brig run by the Tall Ships Youth Trust, an organisation that gives youngsters the opportunity to receive sail training. Sailing a tall ship develops leadership skills, teamwork and above all, trust in fellow ship trainees and crew to keep them safe.

A key aspect to keeping a large vessel safe is having access to accurate Admiralty charts, which contain necessary data like water depths, harbour locations and tidal information. Essentially, these charts enable a ship’s officers to navigate safe passage and ensure that the ship will never run aground.

Mariners trust the data because it is the result of surveys that accurately measure water depths at different times over several years and is continually updated to cater for changes due to erosion or silting.

The data is checked and can be relied on. The navigation officer trusts the data.


The same is true for service engineers. Having accurate, up to date information is vital to ensure that equipment is serviced or repaired correctly. Being able to identify the correct part and obtain it quickly means safe and cost effective repairs. No engineer wants to have multiple return visits to a customer because the wrong part has been ordered. Not only is it embarrassing and makes the engineer appear incompetent, but every return visit costs the company, both in monetary terms and reputation.

If a process is changed by a manufacturer or a piece of equipment is subject to a safety notice, then the engineer needs to know. If a part on an appliance has changed, then the engineer needs to know. It’s no good if the data is outdated. Or worse, if the available data is wrong. Having access to the full accurate data at the time of need is paramount.

When the data can be trusted, then the right decisions can be made. Whether that is servicing a piece of vital medical equipment, mending a boiler in a residential property or sailing a 200-foot ship into a small harbor, the same principle applies.

That element of trust is crucial in data, whether it be on the charts that keep ships safe or in the technical and parts manuals that assist service engineers on site.

More information on the Tall Ships Youth Trust and how you can get involved can be found on their website at


Keep Things Simple, Stupid!

Massive oil tankers and other ocean-going merchant vessels were a sector that Infomill had never experienced before.  As a small company specialising in enhancing technical information used in maintaining equipment, I had never thought our products and services could apply to the marine industry.  I was wrong.  Not only was the idea of working with ships fascinating, but the client was based in Hong Kong. A trip to the pearl of the orient was just icing on the cake.  Or Dim Sum.

The project was a unique challenge.  It seemed to be an issue regarding technical data communication between ships at sea and shore-based managers. These managers were responsible for keeping the vessels on schedule, which meant avoiding any mechanical problems that would interfere with the intensive schedule.  It seemed that the volume of technical data traffic was simply too much for the fleet network, both on and off-shore.  So a couple of Infomill consultants were called in to see what we could find out…

What started as a technical investigation soon transformed into a process review.  We examined who was sending what to where and why. We realised that the organisational structure meant that the same piece of information was duplicated and copied multiple times by different departments and line managers with hardcopies being made and filed.  As space is at such a premium in Hong Kong, these files were then taken offsite and stored at a considerable cost.

So, rather than recommend a technological solution to the problem that the client thought they had, we simply suggested ways in which this cross-departmental confusion could be streamlined.  The result was a reduction in workload for the staff, easing congestion on their network and a reduction in cost.

Our client was very happy.  Two people from a small company had solved their problem easily and, I have to admit, at a low price.  I realised that perhaps this had been too low when our client then produced a massive tome of reports and recommendations from a large global consultancy company and placed it on the desk.  They had apparently suggested a solution the included all sorts of technology and clever systems at a very high price.

However, they had failed to address the underlying problems that had been there all along.  Our client suspected that there had to be a simpler solution and had contacted Infomill as we had a reputation for delivering realistic and pragmatic systems and advice.

We were later treated to a wonderful evening at one of Hong Kong finest restaurants as our reward.

Not only did this experience provide us with a unique opportunity to work in a different industry, but it also proved a vital point: the best solution doesn’t necessarily have to involve elaborate proposals, fancy technology and expensive systems. Oftentimes the road to success is all about simplicity and efficiency.


Heating Controls: An IoT Case Study

A lot of things are being connected to the internet that probably shouldn’t be (with hilarious consequences)

Firstly, I have to admit to being a bit of an IoT sceptic. Anyone who follows the internetofs**t [i] (redacted for politeness) Twitter account will know that there are an awful lot of things being connected to the internet that probably shouldn’t be (with hilarious consequences). The recent story of someone’s 11 hour attempt to boil an internet connected kettle [ii] should be a warning to us all.

Also, the recent DDOS attack on the Dyn DNS provider [iii] seems to have been made by a botnet that consisted mainly of internet connected devices (mostly cameras and DVRs). A lot of these devices have unpatched vulnerabilities and seemingly no mechanism for patching them in the field. As one joker put it “The internet was designed to survive a nuclear explosion, now it is being brought down by toasters”.

I am also generally not an early adopter of technology. I tend to wait until a technology has matured (and the price has dropped). I didn’t rush to get a mobile phone and when I did it was a generation behind the cutting edge. I guess that I am just a cautious person (or maybe just a skinflint).

So when I heard that new heating controls were available that enabled you to control your home heating system remotely my first thought was “Why on earth would you want to do that?”. I have managed for several years with a digital programmable room thermostat that has (mostly) been fine.

Venturing forth into Smart Thermostat territory

This year it broke down. I have boiler repair cover with  one of the large energy suppliers and the controls are included. I could have had a like for like replacement but was offered their smart thermostat as an upgrade. I got a discount equivalent to the value of the old controls plus a summer sale offer so I decided to go for it. I had heard there were problems with the first generation system but they have now moved to the second generation which hopefully has addressed those issues!  The installation was very straight forward, with the only tricky bit being a telephone payment to a call centre that was clearly in India.

So far I am pleased with my purchase. Even without the internet connectivity, the new control is a vast improvement on my old one. The unit itself is quite smart and stylish with a mirror finish over a colour display (the first generation was a very plain white box). You can even purchase different coloured surrounds to fit with your decor!

In manual mode it is very easy to use. The unit also easily detaches from the wall mount so that you can control the temperature of the room you are in rather than one you aren’t. Although, as you would expect, you can program a schedule of on/off times and temperatures, I have mostly used it in this mode.

An IoT Success Story?

Anyway, on to internet connectivity which is surely the main selling point of this device? There is a small box that connects to your internet router. This also requires external power. There is of course also an associated app which is fairly easy to use, but a little bit basic in that it doesn’t seem to quite live up to the sleek hardware in terms of sleek design.

It doesn’t even flip when you turn the screen around. That being said the functionally is fine. You can do all of the things with the app that you can do with the control, but presumably from anywhere in the world. I guess this comes down to the critical point: how is this useful?

Well, I think rather than using scheduled heating which clearly involves heating a house that is sometimes unoccupied, this enables you to have heat on demand only when you need it. I currently have no regrets on my decision but we shall see. I have already changed from having the heating come on at a set time in the morning to just using the app to switch it on when I wake up.

Maybe I will also use it to switch it on just before I come home from work.  In theory this should save some money but only time will tell. The good news is that I can switch on the heating even when the internet is down. It seems to me that one essential component of any IoT device should be a manual override!