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Three tech lessons learned the hard way (from Hurricane Sandy)

Sandy cell tower hurricaneLast week’s superstorm changed my perspective on what qualifies as “cool tech.”

I live on the coast of Connecticut, and we evacuated when the police told us to get out. I tried from afar to monitor the storm and understand whether my neighbors who stayed put were safe, and whether our houses were intact. Here are three lessons I have taken away from the ongoing experience.

Stay out of the middle

Back in our house, I typed this column by the light of a Brunton Polaris LED camping lantern. The tiny device costs about $40, and years ago I hesitated to spend so much on a battery-powered lantern; now I know it was a bargain. The battery seems to last forever, and it is bright enough to transform a dark room into a usable space. It is so bright, most of the time we keep it on “low.”

For years, I’ve had a few friends who argue you should only buy very cheap or very high-quality goods, never anything in the middle. If the cheap stuff gets wrecked or thrown away, you don’t mind. But when you really need something to work as promised – and for an extended period – you’ll be glad you invested in quality.

LED lamp hurricane sandyThe problem is, a lot of innovative new products fall into the middle. Until last week, I thought a certain segment of customers might be willing to pony up for sensors that enable their refrigerator to order more milk, cheese and meat when supplies ran low. But such sensors would have to be reliable to be dependable, but affordable enough to justify a service no one really needs. They fall in the middle.

Likewise, no one really needs a door sensor that texts you when your child comes home from school. Any child old enough to come home to an empty house is old enough to have a cellphone and text you himself.

Cool tech that’s stuck in the middle is a sucker’s bet.

Sensors need to go local

My neighborhood is nestled against a river and Long Island Sound, and we came within minutes of being totally flooded; 90 minutes before high tide, as the waters topped the walls, the surge suddenly subsided. At the time, I didn’t just want to know whether the storm was hitting our coastline – that was obvious – I wanted to know whether the waters had topped the seawall or reached my house.

Every waterfront, riverfront or low-lying area should have ultra-tough, low-power sensors that can show exactly how far the waters have risen. Across a huge expanse of the East Coast, we now know where such sensors should be placed in our yards, neighborhoods, and also in the streets around us, which flooded and blocked potential escape paths. Yes, I’d be willing to pay for such sensors.

At the height of the storm, the media was reporting how high the waters had risen in, say, Battery Park and New Haven, but when a flood is coming, local really matters. You want to know how high the waters are near your house, and Sandy pointed out just how fickle storms can be. Our neighborhood was largely spared, but the one across the cove was crushed, largely because the winds shifted. It could easily have been the other way around.

Reliability is more important than revolutionary

Sensors are worthless if they fail or go offline. At the height of the storm, none of the webcams or wind sensors in my area were uploading data. Given that, I’d vote for tougher sensors and better back-up power options before additional sensors.

I learned that reliability is essential. It’s cool to talk about dropping your landline phone altogether, but they have their own power supply and can work when your power fails. My AT&T U-verse phones stayed up for two days after the storm passed, then went down for 26 hours, for reasons inexplicable to both their tech support and media-relations teams.

landline phoneThe cellphone systems in lower Manhattan appear to have failed when Manhattan lost power. Many of our new toys aren’t as reliable as our old ones. Many of our new companies don’t have the same emphasis on 99.999 percent reliability.

To close on a positive note, at times like these I am thrilled to have files stored on four different cloud-based services. Even if my devices run out of power, all I need is a few minutes on a borrowed device. I can then grab a few files and send them to another part of the world, where others can pick up the slack while I search for the Holy Grail: electricity, Internet access, and anything fresh to eat.

Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.

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