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How The World Will Transform Once There Are Environmental Sensors Everywhere

As sensors become small and cheap, we're creating a global network of environmental data collection to help us figure out the best ways to quickly cut emissions.

Devices like Smart Citizen kits and the Air Quality Egg are democratizing environmental data.

[Top Photo: Naeblys via Shutterstock]

Bettina Tratz-Ryan is an optimist on topics that mostly breed gloom, like global warming and urban decay. A VP at the Frankfurt office of research firm Gartner, she believes that the current explosion of little Internet-connected sensors can change how cities use energy and make pollution—and that regular citizens can play a role. "People in China become extremely dissatisfied with the environmental performance of their country," says Tratz-Ryan, as Beijing suffers under some of its most-toxic smog ever. Even in that tightly controlled society, activists are having victories, she says, pointing to public protest that recently stopped the siting of a waste incinerator in the city of Luoding.

Citizens are becoming more powerful, she says, thanks to small, affordable sensors that they can use to collect alternative environmental data. "Ten years ago, [sensors were] in big buildings or these huts centered in downtown areas," she says. "[Now], we actually have smaller types of sensors that can be either connected to a mobile phone or to a car or a bicycle."

Air Quality Egg connected sensor

In a report from last year that Tratz-Ryan co-wrote, Gartner estimated that by 2019, "citizen environmentalists" will have deployed more personal sensors, measuring things like air and water pollution, than governments have in countries with well developed economies. Smart Citizen kits, for example, are palm-sized boxes that measure the key air pollutants carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as well as humidity, temperature, and noise levels. Data is uploaded to the Smart Citizen website, which shows about 800 kits deployed around the world, more than half of them in Europe. The basic kits cost about $170, before tax and shipping. Smart Citizen's Guillem Camprodon tells me by email that they are trying to get the cost down, but that, "proper gas and air reliable sensors are still expensive."

Air Quality Egg is a similar network of about 1,300 CO2 and NO2 sensors, which cost $240 each. Neither is an impulse buy, nor anything close to the simplicity of a Nest thermostat or Dropcam.

The Air Quality Egg website requires users to configure their Egg by downloading the Codebender browser plugin and connecting over USB. Victor Aprea, co-owner of gadget maker Wicked Device, says by email that they too expect prices to come down; and a mobile app for controlling the device may be coming. (Smart Citizen already has one.)

Egg icons blanket the online map in expected regions like Western Europe and the northeastern U.S., but also in the country of Georgia, between the Black and Caspian Seas, where a community group purchased 38 of them. Both networks also have a smattering in India. "There's ... a sport that’s going on in the Western world," says Tratz-Ryan, "but also fact-checking the government in some of the emerging markets."

A community group in Goergia purchased almost 40 Air Quality Eggs

At the city level, some governments are leading sensor-driven environmental measures, using things like motion sensors to track traffic. "If you take these sensors that actually monitor the environment and the amount of data that you can analyze, based on some of the patterns, and link it to weather patterns, you link it to traffic statistics by time of day, and population, you can actually start to manage infrastructure in a much more efficient way," she says. Actions cities can take to lower the pollution, such as dynamically changing the timing of traffic lights, can also have the happy effect of reduce travel times by around 25%.

Sensor data is interesting, but when you link it online to other things, like traffic lights, then fold in data sources like weather reports, then mix it all up with serious computing power, you get an automated world that adjusts itself to changing conditions. This is a perfect example of how Internet of Things will work in the future. And while it isn’t specifically targeted at environmental management, it almost always touches on the environment, because it so often measures and controls things that use—and waste—energy.

Moving from the streets to the inside of buildings offers more opportunities. Many (perhaps most) office workers know the dilemma of feeling colder in the summer than in the winter. Tratz-Ryan points to San Francisco's smart city initiative, which placed sensors in public buildings. "They actually realized that their air conditioning [in] the courthouse, the library, even between the hours of 6 o'clock in the evening to 8 o'clock in the morning, [was] at the same level," she says. "It's basically totally wasted energy."

Tratz-Ryan envisions smarter use of heating and cooling going even further, down to the individual level. But it starts with monitoring masses of people moving through a building to do things like dynamically adjust the heating and cooling. A system can do this by honing in on personal devices such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth radios on smartphones. "They communicate your location without identifying who you are," she says. "So it's totally within the data privacy limits for the individual."

People who are fussier about their work environment might choose to give up some anonymity. They could allow the building's system to track what room they are in, for example, to turn down the AC when they enter a conference room if they tend to get cold easily. In this case, people themselves are the sensors. It's not as if companies aren't already tracking their staffers. Employers can read their workers' emails, and RFID access cards let companies log when people enter the building and even what floors they go to.

This further level of tracking would at least provide some benefit to the employees. "You would have that chip that would identify you at your floor level," says Tratz-Ryan, "and really aligns the floor to…the ambiance [of] the people who are in there." Much of the infrastructure is already in place. Big buildings use platforms from companies like Siemens and Schneider Electric to control heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting systems in buildings. New data from sensors, including tracking human sensors, can be fed into the platforms for more fine-grained control.

The key is to keep this an opt-in, customizable system, she says. People could preserve some privacy by limiting the tracking to only certain parts of the building or times of day, for example. "Or you could say, don't track me at all," she says. "Then I don't have the convenience of having everything aligned to my needs, my settings, but then you're not getting traced. ... You have data-privacy rights."

Regardless how they use sensor data, cities will be the leaders in cutting energy and pollution, says Tratz-Ryan, because they are the major sources also suffer many of its effects. They also have the ability to make concrete changes on the ground. Already, cities have been among the biggest advocates for ambitious goals at the Paris climate change talks. "I predict that cities ... become the environmental centers of excellence," says Tratz-Ryan, "because they know. They know what's going on."