Data Canvas: Sense Your City

a foray into urban sensing

So, I got to stop by the Swiss consulate in Massachusetts. Like others passing through swissnex Boston that day, located inside the consulate, I was there to see about a sensor kit.

About a month ago, I found out that I was one of 100 people selected in 7 cities worldwide (San Francisco, Geneva, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Bangalore, Singapore and Boston) to host a DIY environmental sensor that would measure air quality (dust+gas), noise, UV+digital light, temperature, and humidity. If you know me at all, then you must also know how this news must have induced unrelenting squeals of delight, to what I can only imagine was the misfortune of those in my direct proximity.

But I digress.

This kit is part of something called the Data Canvas project, a collaboration between Gray Area, swissnex San Francisco, and Lift Conference, to crowdsource environmental data from disparate sensors over the course of 3 months and meanwhile opening up the data streams to everybody to access, use, and visualize.

On February 6th, 2015, we will open the data streams from all 100 sensors, and launch the second Data Canvas visualization challenge, after a great first challenge in 2013. Mashups with existing open datasets are encouraged — the more creative, the better!

The octopus of a sensor includes a variety of Grove sensors that measure the variables listed above. These interface with the Seeeduino Cloud which has WiFi capability (based on Dragino WiFi IoT module HE and ATmega32u4). Use of the individual hardware components is well documented in the links provided on the Data Canvas Homepage > Hardware & Resources.

Here’s what assembling the sensor looked like:

Here’s what the code looks like in Sketch.

Here’s what the raw data look like:

What I love about this project so far

  • There is a clear, transparent deployment strategy and design. From hearing about the project to signing up for it to receiving my sensor kit to deploying my sensor, it was clear to me what the project goals are, my role in the project, and what the sensor + sensor data are supposed to accomplish.
  • The sensor is kit-based and uses open source hardware & software, for which there is much accessible documentation.
  • You seemingly need little prior knowledge of hardware/software to be involved, as the instruction for assembly and setup was clear, concise, and intuitive. As much as I geek out over sensors, I’m still no expert. However, the introductory video and materials were easy to follow.
  • By hosting a sensor, you join a community of other canvassers around you and around the world. So far I’ve talked to other sensor hosts in Brazil and San Francisco about their deployments via the Data Canvas Facebook group. Not only that — each city node has hosted in-person building workshops during which canvassers can collaboratively assemble the sensor kits and troubleshoot on site. The project fosters online as well as offline relationships.
  • Lastly but not least-ly, I never discount the importance of the element of delight when it comes to crowdsourced anything, especially when concerning science and/or technology. On the surface level, this project is asking others to help collect environmental data to be visualized in the proximate future. That in itself is not a unique idea. But to feel connected to others doing the same thing, to assemble the sensor with my own hands, to see pictures of sensors going up around the world starting to collect data, to know that data will be used eventually— that is what has defined this experience for me thus far.