The ‘internet of things’ can conjure up grand visions of driverless cars speeding around ‘smart cities’ blanketed by billions of sensors communicating over 5G mobile networks.
At a grassroots level, however, groups of citizens are starting to use the data and sensors for their own purposes. Small-scale projects aimed at solving local problems have started to spread across Europe. A generation of citizen sensors is emerging.
Mara Balestrini is leading the push to put open source-based sensing technology in the hands of communities. She was working on smart city projects five years ago when she realised the public was not being consulted on how the data from the thousands of sensors being embedded across cities would be used.
Nor would they have access to the data to help address their own difficulties. “It is the first time in history that we have had such a low-cost way to collect this amount of data. But traditional technology is hidden in grey boxes and only available to experts. It now has to be democratised,” she says.
Ms Balestrini is now chief executive of think-tank Ideas For Change, which is backing a variety of citizen-based projects to monitor everything from air quality in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to radiation levels around Dutch nuclear power plants.
All the projects are designed to be small scale and run by citizens who have become fed up with being locked out of the use of data, often critical to improving their lives.
The Plaça del Sol in Barcelona has long been a hotspot for late night drinkers, much to the chagrin of residents fed up with the deafening night-time noise. Yet, without any data to take to the authorities, the complaints were largely ignored.
The Making Sense project, backed by the European Union, responded to their concerns and set up a network of 25 sensors that proved noise levels in the square were up to two-and-half-times louder than was permitted by local regulations, even at 3am. The council, confronted by the data, decided to start cleaning the square at 11pm, four hours earlier than previously. The wet ground proved a deterrent to people sitting in the plaza all night, and noise levels fell.
“It was pretty epic. In three months, we completely changed the situation,” says Ms Balestrini. The use of low-cost sensors to press councils into action is also evident in the British city of Bristol, where frog-shaped sensors were installed in homes to monitor for damp.
The issue of damp has not featured in more grandiose smart city plans despite the damage that it can cause.
Data from the frogs have been combined with geolocational data and Land Registry information to paint an accurate picture of a problem that some landlords in the city had ignored.
The frogs, a temperature and humidity sensor connected to a Raspberry Pi 3 computer, were developed by Bristol City Council and Ideas For Change. They gave the council the data it needed to crack down on unscrupulous landlords. An “enhanced frog” is set to be launched after the initial trials proved a success.
The key for the frogs was not only that they were easy to use but that the data generated could be easily understood.
Five years ago, crowdfunding sites were awash with sensor-based gadgets aimed at improving air quality or other facets of people’s lives. Thousands of people backed products that were never used as they were either too difficult to set up or the data generated proved irrelevant. “People paid for these things but found they did not want to use them. Data are not fun per se,” says Ms Balestrini.
Hugh Knowles experienced the same problem, first as a user of basic apps and then as the co-founder of BuggyAir, an air pollution monitoring start-up that attaches sensors to prams.
Mr Knowles says that as a cyclist he was constantly sent ‘high pollution alerts’ that were at best useless and at worst, terrifying. Having launched BuggyAir, backed by Bupa, the health insurer, and Innovate UK, the agency that supports science and technology businesses, he found that data showing high levels of pollution at pram level could deter people from leaving the house. “The danger is you just end up knowing exactly how much pollution you have swallowed,” he says. Mr Knowles says that BuggyAir could have sold “thousands and thousands” of sensors to worried parents and that it had received offers of equity financing to scale up production. However, the team realised that it would fall into the trap of selling sensors for the sake of it without solving the root problem of reducing air pollution.
The company is kicking off new trials with a view to providing data to improve air quality fundamentally, eventually making its product redundant. Mr Knowles wants to empower citizens, not just sell them kit. “The burning issue for me is we are surrounded by technology but we are removing” the power to act, he says.
The key for citizen sensor projects is to design gadgets that will not need to exist in five years, says Mr Knowles.
We need to understand what we are trying to achieve and not just collect data
Unlike larger corporate IoT projects, citizen sensing needs to be smaller in scope and targeted at solving a problem.
“We need to understand what we are trying to achieve and not just collect data.”
Part of that can be simply raising awareness of what is possible. Aaron Kiely, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, says the environmental charity has trialled high-tech tags to monitor air quality but found that more basic diffusion tube tests are just as effective. “We found there was a real disconnect between people’s concern about air pollution and their view on the quality of the air where they lived.” Many people who in east London expressed alarm about air pollution in central London, he says. Yet the same Londoners were not aware that “the air they were breathing [near their homes] was toxic and way above legal limits”.
Citizen sensors have become more prevalent in the past two years and successful projects such as Making Sense will start to change people’s perceptions of IoT. “Over the next five years, there will be massive growth in both the deployment and use of these type of technologies by communities. We can change the world,” says Ms Balestrini.