Monitoring New York poverty with Urban IoT
Thu 29 Sep 2016
Researchers from New York University have undertaken initial studies which explore the potential benefits of deploying ‘Urban IoT’ sensor systems in low-income neighbourhoods with too little commercial acumen to benefit from all but the most inclusive municipal sensor schemes.
The project is aimed at three distinct residential areas in New York City, but the pilot project concentrates on Red Hook, with custom sensors used to gather high-resolution information in order to create a ‘quantified community’.
The paper that the researchers have just published explains the impetus behind the study:
‘Our motivation stems from how little is known about how the built environment and urban environmental conditions impact individual and community well-being and health. Ultimately, this research can support a more complete understanding of the interaction of poverty, health, and the environment in urban neighborhoods.’
The objectives of the scheme include the creation of new models and metrics for urban planning and placemaking; to create methods that allow citywide assessment across very diverse sections of the local population and economy; and to improve municipal outcomes on health, activity and resource conservation, amongst others.
One example of the monitoring loci setup is the analysis of intersection and street-level temperatures during periods of extreme heat, allowing the possibility to alert those registered with respiratory illnesses. The possibility of deploying real-time analytics in this way gives far more granular and local warnings than traditional ‘top of roof’ temperature assessments for a city.
Of wider environmental interest to the study is its potential impact on the understanding of the Urban Heat Island effect, wherein large tundral expanses of concrete can super-heat and raise the ambient temperature in a radius that can even affect local rural areas (presumably more affluent ones).
The inhabitants of Red Hook, suffer from asthma at a rate 2.5x the national average, and also have a lower average life expectancy (by ten years). A third of Red Hook residents are living below the Federal poverty line.
The project is intended to be collaborative, rather than a clinical surveillance of an unwitting neighbourhood:
‘We see several opportunities to directly engage communities and local residents in urban informatics and data science through the QC project. First, we use citizen science initiatives to bring the community into the process of problem identification and problem-solving through participatory data collection and analysis…By involving residents in the research, and allowing them to help shape the hypotheses to be tested, the scope of possible research questions increases.’
The privacy implications of such a project have not been overlooked in the Red Hook experiment. The Quantified Community’s data protocols mandate that all data collected be made known to ‘local stakeholders’ in an appropriately anonymised or aggregated form, with the intention of increased community collaboration in the initiative.
In devising the project’s signature technology, the QC Urban QoL (Quality of Life) Sensor, the researchers chose the 5V Trinket Pro by Adafruit Industries, due to its low power consumption of 30mA during normal running, its sub-$10 cost and its compact dimensions (38.1mm x 17.7mm x 5mm).
The QoL Sensor focuses on environmental measurements including temperature, air quality, luminosity, pressure and humidity, attempting to strike a balance between accuracy and potential cost in larger or later deployments.
The equipment is capable of monitoring dust content as a component of air quality and takes a data sampling every five seconds.
Initial tests in Red Hook found a variation in air quality, even within sections of a distinct neighbourhood, which surprised the research team. The researchers concluded that initial results illustrate ‘the potential use of real-time, granular air quality measurements to detect anomalous levels of particulates that might have a direct health impact on those with respiratory illnesses or vulnerable immune systems.’
Other sites participating in the QC program include Hudson Yards, a ‘city within a city’ consisting of 20 million square feet in Manhattan; and another unnamed section of lower Manhattan.
Further acknowledging the sensitive nature of this kind of scientific study, the researchers conclude:
‘To successfully conduct this type of work in other neighborhoods, the importance of a strong local community partner to serve as a coordinator and voice of residents and businesses cannot be overstated.’