What if libraries could harness the Internet of Things (IoT) to better serve their communities?

Shared Components for Museums and Libraries

Local libraries across America do not always have an easy time gathering data on the services they offer to patrons. Problems with these types of data make it difficult for libraries to understand the demand for their services, measure how those services are being utilized, and report that information to other government bodies that help support libraries, like State Librarians and the Institute for Museums and Library Services (IMLS).

After researching this space over a few phases, 10x placed this bet: new, innovative technology can help libraries fundamentally change how they gather, report, and interpret data. Better yet, we got to explore new challenges for 10x, like building real hardware. What if libraries could harness the Internet of Things (IoT) to better serve their communities?

Why this matters

Aside from their status as beloved institutions of American life, libraries are essential pillars of support for their communities. From offering free English classes to non-native speakers to serving as ballot drop-off locations, libraries make a difference. And despite being a quintessentially local phenomenon, libraries have a network of support at both the state level (State Librarians) and in the federal government, in the form of the Institute for Museums and Library Services (IMLS), which is an independent federal agency that supports libraries and museums across the country.

Just like most modern organizations, libraries rely on good data to help them make decisions. If a librarian notices a long wait list for attending one of its computer literacy classes, they might be able to expand the class size, or offer additional classes at night. But not all useful data is as easy to collect as counting empty chairs in a classroom.

Every year, IMLS conducts the Public Library Survey, or PLS. The survey collects data on about 100 different metrics that helps federal and state governments allocate resources to meet the changing needs of libraries. Think of it as the census for libraries. Thousands of libraries across the country complete the survey and report the data to their state library agencies, and those agencies report further up to IMLS, who analyzes the data and works with the Executive Branch and Congress to identify priorities and make decisions. Collecting, exchanging, and analyzing all of this data across all of those different organizations isn’t easy.

One of the most important measures that the PLS collects is data on how many people are accessing wifi at local libraries. After all, free internet is a critical service that many libraries offer. Even during the height of the pandemic when most establishments were closed, many libraries were still able to offer free, reliable wifi to patrons, some of whom had lost their jobs and needed to apply for unemployment benefits. All that to say, understanding wifi usage is important data for IMLS and local libraries. This 10x project focuses on working with IMLS to improve how libraries can learn how and when people take advantage of free internet, and how gathering that data could be improved.

What we're doing

We’re helping IMLS improve its implementation of the public library survey by offering a new, internet of things (IoT) capability to local libraries that will automate how wifi sessions are counted, reported, and analyzed. 

How we're doing it

Through working with IMLS, our project team developed free and open-source software that pairs with inexpensive, commercially-available, single-board computers. These small computers are commonly used by hobbyists and researchers around the world, but our team is using them as remote sensors placed inside libraries. For initial testing, IMLS sent dozens of sensors to libraries around the country and then taught them to use the custom software built by our project team for counting wifi sessions. The data produced by the sensors is sent via API to a hosting database on cloud.gov and is validated by ReVAL (another product of 10x) where it can be received and analyzed by IMLS in real-time. This process saves thousands of hours of manual work for employees at libraries, state agencies, and makes the analysis more accurate and timely. This project represents the first time that 10x is dabbling into the world of internet of things (IoT) as part of its solution design, which is very exciting for us.  

Where we are today

At the time of this writing, sixteen libraries in five states are piloting this technology by capturing wifi session data with our sensors. One additional state and several libraries coming online shortly. 

In partnership with IMLS, our project team shipped eighteen hardware sensors, set up server infrastructure for validation and storage and deployed three different versions of our software. Based on automated and user testing, we are confident that the latest version of our software can continue running without intervention for a year or longer.

Next Steps

Our project team is working with IMLS to prepare a pitch for Phase Four funding from 10x. If approved, the project team will work with IMLS to scale our IoT approach to as many libraries across the country as possible. 

In addition, this project has created some spin-off work based on other value paths the 10x team uncovered along the way. One parallel project that will be supported by funding from the American Rescue Plan is leveraging a simple discovery made along the course of this project that could lead to massive impact for millions of Americans. While dabbling in the IoT space for the first time, the project team discovered that the wifi count sensors can be easily modified into remote internet hotspots, just like on a smartphone. This discovery could play a huge role in closing the digital divide by bringing internet access to millions of American students who don’t have reliable internet at home. More on that exciting endeavor soon.