The Things Network: Building a global IoT data network in 6 months

In 6 months we provided a complete city with a new breed of wireless data network, inspired more than 100 cities around the world to do the same and raised 300.000 euro through a crowdsourcing campaign build the network world-wide. The first months of The Things Network were a rollercoaster and this is the story.

It all started in June 2015 at a Hackerspace in Amsterdam where I met up with Jonathan Carter. He showed me a first version of a LoRaWAN gateway. He mentioned that the specs were still not finished but this technology LoRaWAN had the capability of connecting thousands of devices within a range of 1o kilometers with a router and only costing 1200 euro.

I was totally amazed by its capabilities and the price point. A city similar to the size of Amsterdam is easily covered with ten LoRaWAN gateways. And this could be the break-through for a lot of Internet of Things applications that needed to last on a battery for a long time and only need to sent small pieces of data. It even promises to do very cheap positioning in next versions of the protocol.

The Internet of Things is in great need of actually connecting things to the internet without any cumbersome WiFi codes or mobile subscriptions. Costing a lot or draining the battery of the device.

After some investigation on how businesses are using this technology I saw that mainly telcos are using it to build proprietary closed networks. Using subscriptions per device as their revenue model.

At that point I wondered if we could build this network crowdsourced. Making citizens, businesses, universities and developers build the networks and connect it all together with open source software. You know, like how the internet was build.

Founders Johan Stokking and Wienke Giezeman

I had already planned a coffee meeting with my friend Johan Stokking who I used to share co-working space Boven de Balie at my previous company. He was directly caught on by the idea and we decided to start on this project together. Johan would take on the technical side and I would take on the community and communication part.

We set the ambition to build a global crowdsourced IoT network with a community of citizens, businesses, governments and developers. To validate if this was something that would gain some traction in the IoT community we pitched the idea at the IoT Meetup of Amsterdam:

Building a decentralized open and crowdsourced IoT data network, owned and operated by its users.
You can see the full presentation here on Youtube.

Straight away a group of makers were interested and only 3 days later we met again to discuss how to start on our mission. Johan Hoeksma, Fokko Visser, Ruud Vlaming, Bob van Sommeren, Martijn van der Veen, Jonathan Carter and Hans Donner were now part of the team.

We first drafted a manifest to get us aligned. Describing how the network should be build decentralized, without a single owner and no single point of control.

One of the first community meetings (Johan on Skype because he was Hacker Paradise Barcelona)

The plan was to use Amsterdam as our test city. We set the ambitious goal to cover it with a LoRaWAN data network in 6 weeks. And expanding all across the world after that. I never told the team my hidden agenda here. But my girlfriend was expecting our daughter 4 weeks after the set deadline, so I thought this would be safe.

The_Plan.pptx — the plan we created in July 2015.

We needed to find at least ten businesses and citizens in Amsterdam to buy LoRaWAN gateways and host them at their premises. And we needed to write network software so all these gateways would work together as one network. Last but not the least we needed to make a story that would address to a larger audience.

The architecture for the first network software was build by the group of makers and we started approaching the people of Amsterdam to see if we could find contributors for building the network.

It only took us three weeks to get co-working spaces, media businesses, startups, the Port of Amsterdam and two big-four companies to join our mission. We were amazed by the diversity of the companies that were contributing.

One of the first to respond positively were Boris and Patrick from The Next Web. After receiving my mail they applied for placing a gateway on their premisses in Amsterdam right away. And they helped a lot with spreading the word when we launched as well.

As The Next Web we love to embrace these kind of initiatives. Building an open and free internet for things and making it for the people and by the people is aligned with our beliefs.” — Boris, CEO The Next Web

Interesting thing was that the contributors wanted to help out more than just buying the hardware. Deloitte is helping out with security audits on the network. KPMG helps out with our global expansion. Rockstart provided space for our events.

Next up was the use case which we needed to spread the story within a larger audience. We came up with the idea to make a water detector for recreational boats that are in the canals of Amsterdam. Some how these always end up with water inside and if you wait long enough they are at the bottom of the canal. So we created a little device that detects the water in a boat, then sends an SMS to the owner who can respond by sending “clear my boat” which tells a service to clear the water from that boat.

After some hard work by the team we were ready to launch this network during an event at Rockstart Amsterdam 7 weeks after we started.

We had some very intersting speakers as well. Like the CTO of Amsterdam, Ger Baron, telling about how he liked this initiative by the citizens.

“What I really like about this is that Amsterdam’s city government was not involved at all. This is completely initiated, financed and built by inhabitants of Amsterdam.” — Ger Baron, CTO of Amsterdam

It was great to see so many people come for the launch and expressing interest in our initiative. Jan-Willem Smeenk from Sodaq was there to showcase their rhino tracker they have been working on based on LoRa. 30Mhz telling about their work for the Port of Amsterdam. And Telenor sharing experiences about their LoRaWAN projects.

We also launched this video. Summarizing what we were up to and sharing it with the world.

After several publications on major blogs the story spread like wildfire across the IoT scene and soon communities in Sao Paulo, Boston, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Sydney, Manchester and Kochi were popping up to implementing The Things Network in their city. To help them out with setting up their local The Things Network campaign we created community sites like http://www.thethingsnetwork.org/c/amsterdam for every city.

(My daughter was born indeed four weeks after we launched in Amsterdam and is a healthy little baby and she is doing great!)

See a video with the first initiators here.

The main feedback we got from them was that there was a lot of technical knowledge required for building the network. And that the usabillity of installing the gateways was still very cumbersome. So they demanded a cheaper and more user friendly gateway.

We then met up with John Tillema and Dimer Schaefer from Tweetonig. A product agency from Rotterdam. They told me that they were already working on LoRaWAN for a year and had a great amount of experience in developing and producing electronics. So Johan and I asked them to come up with a LoRaWAN gateway that was 200 euro and easy to install.

The Tweetonig Team

They came back with a very well designed gateway and the idea to also include development devices and make it a product package. These development devices allow you to make an end to end use case on The Things Network. One device for developers, an Arduino development board that has a LoRaWAN chip so it can connect to The Things Network. And a development device that has a some sensors, a light, a button and LoRaWAN connectivity in a closed casing. To be used for prototyping with lesser technical knowledge.

We decided to use Kickstarter to pre fund our production. Of course that could not have been possible without a nicely produced video made by Soda content from Amsterdam.

One of our community members Marcus Kirsch (who I met through the founder of the IoT Council, Rob Kranenburg) offered to help Johan and me out with managing the Kickstarter campaign. More than 900 people had already shown interest in previews of the product by signing up to a mailing list. So we already got a good fan base of potential Kickstarter backers.

We had a lot of discussions on how to position the campaign page. We were not a typical Kickstarter product. We were selling a vision, not so much a set of devices. We decided to stay on that path and as you can see in the final Kickstarter campaign we were mainly focussing on telling the story about an open and free Internet of Things data network.

We also created a small landing page that whould allow backers to see how many people they would impact when placing a The Things Gateway.

We planned to launch The Kickstarter at the Crowdsourcing Week in Brussels on the 21st of October 2015. The Kickstarter campaign would go live at 14:00. Which we told our fan base, but we would only tell the rest of the world at 15:00, as we communicated in this mail.

The plan was that between 14:00 and 15:00 a significant amount of backers would support us so that when the word got out and the general public would see the page it would already have a good amount of credibility.

So there Johan and I were launching it at 14:00 and before even announcing it on stage we had already 30.000 euros. Our plan worked.

We went off to an amazing start and we reached 50% in 24 hours.

In the following weeks we were in the top 10 on Product Hunt (thanks Milan van den Bovenkamp) and Hacker News. On a ton of major blogs. Even invited to come speak at SXSW 2016. We got invited for TV shows and we were on the national news.

One of the more notable backers were three Dutch provinces, Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe. Internet entrepeneurs Mark Vletter and Joshua Peper convinced them to join and pledge for a completely covering network in their province. Which resulted in the largest pledges of the campaign.

After 8 days we reached our 100% Kickstarter goal of 150.000.

And after 30 days the Kickstarter campaign ended with 295.331 euros and 934 backers.

We learned that there are two big spikes in any Kickstarter campaign. At the start and at the end and a small ramp up to the 100% goal. Which was very interesting as we gained some serious pledges at the end. Want to know more details about how we did the campaign, Marcus wrote a great article on how we did the campaign.

The Things Network graph

And mean while the communities around the world were continuing to pop up.

As we expanded the community platform we saw a number of use cases. In December we arranged global Q&A sessions through Google Hangouts, Where more than 200 people joined ans shared their ideas.

We also did several Hackathons, one together with MultiTech in New York at The Next Web conference.

This story only scratches the surface of what we have been doing and only mentions a small part of the people that were involved. Hereby Johan and and I want to thank everybody.

To give you an overview on what has been done and what to expect

We validated that there is demand for a network like this and that we could move a community of citizens, businesses, governments and developers to build it. We had a sh*t load of fun.

Our next big challenge is how to keep our project sustainable and maintain the global growth. Our plans for 2016 are depicted in my next article, coming up soon. Read all about our next plan here.