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Embedded sensors give once-silent systems a voice, and it turns out they have plenty to say.
You don’t need a therapist to tell you communication is the key to a healthy relationship. When all parties involved are expressing their needs effectively, only then will an exchange be mutually beneficial. But what if you don’t speak the same language? Or what if one party can’t communicate at all?
The relationship that we have with our immediate surroundings, and with the environment at large, has always been fairly one-sided. On the planetary scale, it often takes decades of gathering quantitative data before confident assertions can be made about natural systems. And then there’s the time it takes to change established social behaviors in response to those findings. But now, thanks to the proliferation of powerful, low-cost sensors, our natural and artificial worlds are being given their own voice. These environmental whispers are providing dynamic illustrations of the planet’s condition and performance in real-time, and allowing us to understand and address issues more rapidly.
As Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco, in an interviewwith the American Civil Liberties Union explains:
“We estimate that only one percent of things that could have an IP address do have an IP address today, so we like to say that ninety-nine percent of the world is still asleep. It’s up to our imaginations to figure out what will happen when the ninety-nine percent wakes up.”
If these walls could talk, right? But why stop with the walls? It turns out that if dumpsters could talk, cities could cut waste management costs by 40%. That means less noisy trucks to wake you up in the morning, less fuel burning up into the atmosphere and all around less garbage sitting around your city for less time. All this from a clever little system from a company called Enevo. By placing wireless sensors in waste containers, Enevo is able to create optimized pick-up routes based on the amount of garbage in each bin. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The comprehensive system takes account of truck availability, traffic information, road closures and a lot more. But if a little data can make that big of a change, imagine what we could do with big data.
In the Spanish city of Santander, a network of 12,000 sensors communicates what’s happening in town. Integrating these devices into new and existing city infrastructure — such as street lights, public signage and roads — has added an incredible new depth to the way that people are able to engage with their environment. Authorities now have access to real-time data on things like utilities, traffic, energy consumption and pollution. Residents get updates on available parking spaces and public transit, and they can use an app to notify the city of public annoyances like potholes (or too-noisy neighbors). The project, SmartSantander, was launched in 2010, with an initial budget of €6 million (roughly US$8 million) from the European Commission. That may seem like a large investment, but having access to real-time data has already cut the city’s electrical bill by 25%. Those walls aren’t so special now, are they?
Recently the MTA installed a bunch of touchscreen info-kiosks, which is great. For tourists.
For the people who live in New York, and depend on the MTA to get them everywhere they need to be (and who pay for the privilege), the kiosks are little more than animated billboards.
If, in addition to the kiosks, the MTA were to install a network of small cell nodes and create a dedicated app for LTE enabled phones, the organization would be able to offer (and take advantage of) a number of benefits. Stuff like real-time schedule updates, train traffic and station closures. Plus other useful MTA announcements about how our grandchildren will love the 2nd Ave line, and that (though you haven’t seen them) tons of left-field stations are now outfitted with LED time-to-wait signs.
Unlike Wi-Fi, which becomes less effective with more people using it, LTE actually works better because it creates a sort of mesh network. Each station could be equipped with a main router that would transmit data to the trains as they pass, and that data would be accessed by the passengers as they ride. With a dedicated app, the MTA could offer curated news and entertainment content through media partnerships as well as location-based ads and notifications through business partnerships. This could be a potentially huge stream of revenue for the MTA as the pricing could range from city-wide to hyper-local and could be targeted to an individual level (opt-in).
While, unfortunately, a direct line of communication to its ridership is probably not high on the MTA’s list of awesome things, it would let riders and employees report unsafe or concerning conditions quickly. Improving response times for emergency responders or maintenance and repair. If it was a welcome addition they might even consider adding a peer to peer feature in which friends could communicate directly over the LTE spectrum while riding the train. To what advantage? Who knows. There do seem to be a number of Missed Connections about that looker on the train.
The number one benefit this would provide to the MTA would be data. Data data data. So much data. Data about who rides the trains and where they go every day. If those business and media partnerships were in place, there would be data about content preferences and what local deals they were receptive to.
Eventually, the MTA could make use of this app as a method of swipeless entry to replace metrocards (which for a number of reasons are not cost effective). It seems to be on the horizon (still) anyway. So, for riders, this would be fantastic for all the reasons we’d expect. Quicker, more efficient, more convenient, etc. For the MTA this would be incredible. It would allow the organization to combine rider data with credit profiles. Mining that data could predict up and coming neighborhoods years before they blow up. Even as I write this I realize, by all cool standards, that this is pretty evil. But it’s also a real possibility and a lucrative opportunity. By all logic I would expect that some form of this is a certainty.
The biggest hurdles to get this sort of system implemented are probably political. Small cell networks are going to be implemented all over to help mitigate data traffic anyhow. If there were interest in this sort of thing, a number of technology companies would probably shell out at least some of the initial investment needed to install it. Why? Because, as a fairly neat series of tubes beneath a mess of chaotic humanity and commerce, the NYC subway is essentially a physical version of Google search.