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The Smart Citizen Kit: Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring

One of the biggest challenges we face in addressing environmental problems like air pollution is the inability to actively take part in the process. Even though it’s been demonstrated that conscientious efforts towards specific issues (e.g., the impact of aerosol use on the ozone layer) have successfully led us to tackle relatively big problems, there are far too few such examples.

Nevertheless, what’s at stake is far too important not to keep trying. If we think about the way environmental data is gathered today—with few sensors, often located away from city centers—it is unsurprising that the general public is not more actively contributing to finding practical solutions to the most pressing problems. If we take into account that weather reports (our closest proxy to changes in climatological conditions) aren’t always accurate, and have very low spatial resolution, we can expect a sense of disconnect between environmental data and the general public.

Organized by the Fab Lab at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, an international team of scientists, architects, and engineers are paving the way to humanize environmental monitoring: bringing the data as close to the public as possible. The idea is simple, by scattering thousands (and hopefully millions) of inexpensive devices around the world, we are building a global network of sensors that report localized environmental conditions like CO and NO2 levels, light, noise, temperature and humidity.

As the design files are readily available on the web, these pieces of hardware can either be purchased online, or built at home. In addition, the online platform where the measured data are stored has been developed as a social network, where users are not only able to visualize their data, but also to share and compare it with other users around the block, or across the globe.

This citizen-led approach, dubbed the Smart Citizen project, fosters public participation in the process of monitoring the environment. Once enough of these devices are online, we as a community will be able to answer questions such as whether to go for a short or long run based on the current air quality; have a good sense of noise levels in a potential new neighborhood; and, even find the best spot in the backyard for placing highly light-sensitive plants.

Though the inexpensive sensors on the Smart Citizen Kit tend to be of limited precision, having a distributed network of these devices provides unparalleled spatial resolution. As an independent set of measurement devices, the information they provide is highly useful. However, their fullest potential is reached when they’re used to compliment the data collected by traditional sources of environmental monitoring. And the true value of this effort is providing a tool for citizens to participate in environmental monitoring. We expect, as a direct result, the start of conscientious efforts to tackle some of the current problems.

After three years of research and development, the Smart Citizen project has deployed as a proof-of-concept in the city of Barcelona, Spain, where 150 users are reporting data to the online servers. Based on its initial success, the Smart Citizen team is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, where we're raising funds to purchase hardware components in large quantities so as to offer the Smart Citizen Kits at the lowest possible price, complete a smartphone app with additional features to interact with the hardware, and finalize a 3D-printable, resilient enclosure. Please consider supporting our campaign.

Images courtesy of Acrobotic Industries

This project will be featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

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