Vigilante sensing

New Scientists reports this week on a green technotopia experiment in Portugal called PlanIT Valley (sounds very Portuguese, no?). The idea is to build a sustainable city with loads of sensors to detect when and where energy resources should be applied.

Sensors in every building will measure occupancy, temperature, humidity and energy use. This information will be fed to a central “brain”, along with information on energy production from photovoltaic devices and wind turbines, as well as water used and waste produced. The brain can then use this information to control each aspect of the city.

A centralized superbrain sounds a little off the mark to me. I’m skeptical of “trust our central controller” efficiencies. The projects I’ve gotten more excited about involve ad hoc networks of sensors passing information and making local decisions based on the best available information.

Here’s an example of an ad hoc sensor network: birdwatching. BirdsEye is an iPhone app that tells you where the birds are based on what other people using BirdsEye are saying. The database is constantly updated by mobs of birdwatchers.

“Citizen sensors” wired together can act as a sort of supercharged public watchdog, as with the SeeClickFix iPhone app. Got a nasty pothole on your street? Take a picture and report it. Within minutes, other folks can pile on your request and help bring it to the attention of City Hall.

A small but enthusiastic group armed with cheap sensors can make a big difference in public policy. Consider car emissions. You need to get your car inspected once a year, right? And your car always passes, because it’s well-maintained and you’re a good citizen. But what about those old guzzlers that are destined to fail the test? After all, one stinky clunker can undo the goodness of twenty virtuous hybrids. How do they stay on the road? They cheat. It’s not hard to game the system, because a system of annual inspections is a terrible way to find offenders. But as it happens, it’s not hard to detect these cars on the road. They only offend when they drive, and when they drive, you can find them. You can build systems, something like speed traps, that measure emissions and take pictures of license plates. Laws or not, it may be possible to shame people into cleaning up their act.

Call it vigilante sensing. It’s not Big Brother, it’s the Big Crowd. I admit that it has some dark and dangerous possibilities, but like it or not, vigilante sensing is coming. Are the houses in your town poorly insulated? Do the natural gas pipes in your neighborhood leak? Do the lights stay on all night in the business park? All these can be monitored easily enough by simple networked sensors. And once you’ve got data, you’ve got power.