Monday, 10 August 2009

CitySensing - from High-tech Lab to Everyday Gadget

I recently put up a blog post about CirtySensing and ever since the topic is following me around town. Not only because of all the potential sensors I m carrying around with me, but probably also because I am more aware of the topic. I think the topic in general is closely related to the perception of space and in this sense to the mental map we all construct of the space we navigate. Our body senses are usually on high alert while walking down the road and the environment is constantly assessed. From the uneven pavement we adjust our balance, with our ears we can hear the squirrel in the tree above us, we can smell the oil and dust from the building site on the road, we see the red van on the crossroad ahead. To only list the senses that are “official” senses. Probably there is also a sense of some more embodied information such as mussels providing a sense of force and speed, the breath and the heart beat as an indicator of effort or the information about balance and body parts orientation. In short there is a lot of information.
For now I guess the technical sensing is probably simpler to describe, as the processing of the data into information is done by a chip and we can tell the chip what the output should be so it looks like a more straight forward exercise. The economist has put together an extensive list of sensing projects and its potential.
Never the less there are some really exciting technical CitySensing projects out there. For example a cooperation of five Universities (Imperial College, Cambridge, Leeds, Newcastle and Southampton) on the MESAGE project has investigated the use of mobile sensors in urban environments and a variety of applications. A short clip shows a visualization of the collected data. In an interview for “The naked Scientist” on BBC the researchers explain about the potential of the project and pod cast transcript can be found here.

Images from CamMobSens - Pollution monitored by pedestrians and cyclists with mobile devices sent directly to a website.

In Berlin, Germany scientist are testing a network of sensors that are installed in buses. A BBC documentation can be found here. The sensors cover the usual air and road temperature as well as humidity, pollution indicators, some cameras and of course GPS. So traffic information can be calculated. The data is wirelessly transmitted to a processing centre. A project website can be found here.
As a more everyday gadget based project the pathintelligence project is quite interesting. It is developed to locate the users of mobile phones and aimed at retail and shopping centers. The system is detecting the unique signal of each phone and can locate it with about 1-2m accuracy. The shoppers are tracked with a number of static sensors and the data is then used to derive information about flows and preferences of visitors. A demo can be seen here. For shopping centers there is a lot of pressure and competition so they are probably very willing customers for this kind of information. It is partly about offering a better service, but also about internal competition between the brands. For example the tenancy mix but also the optimization of rental costs are listed as benefits. Surprisingly this is only discussed in research circles and shoppers are largely unaware of the monitoring process. The Times had an article on the topic, which was then picked up by the spy blog.

Image by pathintelligence - screenshot of the data viualisation software

A pretty amazing CitySensing project is the sensity work by Stanza. The artist himself describes the project as “An artwork and visualization using data from around the environment. A wireless sensor network show emergent space as social sculpture”. The sensors used can monitor temperature, sounds, noise, light, vibration, humidity, and have a built in GPS unit.
These dynamic visualization scapes have been on show around the world and usually a show leads to another record, as the artist never travels without his equipment. So from London over Copenhagen to Paris and Texas to San Paulo the cities are sensed by stanza.

Image by stanza - sensing Copenhagen KLICK ON IMAGE FOR VISUALIZATION

Image by stanza - This mote is a MTS420 CC from Xbo without the GPS attached.and running in low power mode.

A more of a web 2.0 project relying on crowd sourcing is the lhrNOISEmap project by Ian Tout. He is currently finishing his masters in Geographical Information Science (GISc) at Birkbeck College. He is mapping the aircraft noise produced by an airplane approaching or leaving London Heathrow Airport. For this he has built an online map based on Open Street Map and uses the web platform AudioBoo and their free iPhone application to record airplane noise in London. The short clips can then be mapped, as they are automatically geo referenced. In a second step the data will be aggregated and the noise levels should appear on the map as a layer.
So if you have an iPhone and are somewhere under the flight path of London Heathrow give it a try and participate in this mapping project. A simple step-by-step guide can be found here. You can also follow the project on twitter.

Image by UrbanTIck - screenshot lhrNOISEmap project


Matt D said...

Please don't forget the MIT Copenhagen Wheel ( and the enabling Sensaris AQ sensor (

fan said...

yes this should be covered in a new post. You had a great one back then. I wonder what progress they made. Do you know any details?

Matt D said...

I talked with them a couple of time - me and a couple of other Edmonton based AQ geeks are interested in building a distributed and mobile AQ sensor net in Edmonton. Apparently the wheel will be launched in 2012 - they are going through prototype testing now - and the cost will be about 500USD.