Not a Joke: Mobile Technology Just Connected a Volcano to the Internet

September 8, 2016 Jonathan Crowl

The volcano Masaya will be studied through the use of IoT technology.

Everyone and their mothers have access to the internet nowadays, but you’d never guess just how global the World Wide Web has become. Forget people: in Nicaragua, a volcano just connected to the internet.

That’s not a joke, nor is it an attempt to mislead. GE has launched an ambitious project that uses mobile technology to connect the volcano Masaya to the Web. A total of 80 wireless sensors have been installed inside the volcano’s crater, and the devices will record and transmit data about the volcano’s activity on a real-time basis to an online audience.

The project was conceived as an open-source experiment that would make the data from the volcano freely available to anyone, scientists and researchers included, who wanted to use the information to further their studies about volcanoes and the Earth.

It’s a cool project, and one that illustrates the unlimited potential of internet-of-things (IoT) technology. But what does this tech stunt have to do with digital marketing? As it turns out, quite a bit.

GE Volcano

Why Connect a Volcano to the Web?

There are several layers to the motivations behind creating the world’s first web-connected volcano. As Ad Age pointed out, GE has acknowledged that the volcano does offer marketing benefits to the brand. The company wants to position itself as an authority in the fields of “science, technology and innovation,” and it is aggressively seeking an audience with millennials, after decades of strong associations as a household-appliance maker.

But a mobile-connected volcano hasn’t come out of the blue for the company. GE has already been deploying mobile technology into a number of engineering projects, using similar sensors to predict jet engine failures, compromises in gas pipelines, and other industrial applications. Those project bear similarities to what’s taking place inside the crater of Masaya, where mobile sensors will record a wide range of data points.

And there’s real value in the data that’s being gathered, even if GE doesn’t end up as the top beneficiary of the experiment. To be clear, it’s very possible that GE will use the technology to help develop technology supporting an early eruption warning system, which would use identified markers of an impending eruption to warn the local area to evacuate quickly. Such a system could be deployed on any volcano within striking distance of a major urban area, and the technology could have hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

But GE isn’t hoarding that data as a proprietary asset. Instead, it wants to make the information available to anyone who can make good use of it. While noble, such a decision also demonstrates an awareness of the marketing value that comes with such a landmark feat. Why keep the project behind closed doors when its publicity will likely cover all the costs?

For all the benefits to GE, though, the lesson isn’t transferable to most other companies. Your employer likely won’t embrace the idea of creating a web-connected geyser, glacier, or seismic fault. But there is plenty to be learned from studying the value of a web-connected volcano, and in considering how those insights might be applied on a smaller scale.

A Lesson in Data Acquisition

You can argue that several aspects of GE’s web-connected volcano are innovative in their own rights. But without discounting the significance of being able to detect a volcanic eruption before it starts, the data-acquisition achievements demonstrated on the Masaya volcano have tremendous implications for marketing technology.

IoT isn’t just a way to deliver tech experiences through everyday objects. At its best, IoT offers new ways to understand the world by gathering data through unprecedented methods. Think about the wearable health tech that’s so popular right now: even as it provides feedback about your daily activity, your quality of sleep, and numerous other metrics, it also gathers valuable data on a massive scale, compiling comprehensive information about human health and habits that traditional research hasn’t been able to match.

The behavioral data is particularly valuable, generating insights that have previously been inaccessible. The Masaya volcano is an extreme example, but a relevant one: according to The Verge, wireless sensors will track a range of data, including temperatures, atmospheric pressure, the gases expelled, and even changes in gravity, all in an effort to understand what precipitates an eruption. This information can’t be gathered by humans—we couldn’t survive the conditions, and would be baked to a crisp in the resulting eruption. But IoT-enabled devices can track all of this.

Marketers don’t face such life-or-death scenarios, but the basic principle is the same: marketing tech can take us to places we’ve never been before. Sometimes that’s inside the mouth of a bubbling volcano, other times it’s as simple as offering a glimpse into the daily habits of everyday people. As IoT technology proliferates, we’re discovering new types of data, and recognizing more than ever that this data is the currency that funds effective digital marketing.

The Takeaway for Marketers

If you’re excited about your newfound potential to gather consumer and user data, you’re in luck: most companies won’t need to go nearly as far as wiring a lake of lava to the internet. All you need to do is look around at your existing structures, both physical and virtual, and consider what types of data they might be able to generate.

This is easy in a mobile app, where different touch points and features can be easily added or augmented to generate new data acquisition channels. Developers only need to know what type of data to collect, and from where, and they can build workable solutions in relatively short order.

It’s a bit more complicated in the real world, but with those extra obstacles comes far greater opportunity. Consider, for example, a retail store that builds an IoT-powered mannequin. The mannequin could be a source of impressive data acquisition efforts that illuminate consumer in-store behavior. How long do consumers linger at a mannequin, how many stop and look, and how is that behavior reflected in the sales? With mobile tech implanted into the mannequin, you can.

The same goes for smart mirrors in dressing rooms, foot-traffic mapping, and a wide range of other mobile tech. All of these applications can generate data used to power smarter digital marketing campaigns. Brands get to know their consumer bases better, and their marketing becomes more intuitive as a result.

That’s the lesson offered to marketers by a massive, web-connected volcano nestled somewhere in Central America. Thanks to mobile technology, data is everywhere. All brands need to do is identify their points of interest and invest in tech that can get the job done.

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