Countless cities throughout the globe have already adopted the idea of a city-wide WiFi network. This is the case in our city: Canberra, Australia, where visitors to the city can obtain a fast and free internet connection almost anywhere in the CBD. In the cities of the future, the size and coverage of these networks will be immense. Combined with increasing population, the density of internet connected routers will be incredible. This network is an ideal candidate for a platform on which to design a sensor network for measuring various indicators of healthy living environments.
Our design is not just for a sensor network, but for a platform that will enable the community to track and measure a variety of indicators on a massive scale. Leveraging the existing WiFi networks common to modern cities all around the world, our platform, the Modular Ethernet Sensor Array (MESA) will empower communities to take control of the health of their cities.
MESA is a modular sensor array capable of measuring multiple different environmental indicators and reporting back to a central database. We envisage a suite of low-power sensors that measure air quality, ambient sound levels, light pollution, and data quality. These sensors will connect to a node in the array, and each node will be connected to a WiFi router through Ethernet to provide an internet connection and power (using Power over Ethernet, PoE). The device will send information to a data center, where it will be processed and analysed using a Geographic Information System (GIS) package, producing a geospatial dataset which shows how the each indicator changes across the region and with time. The sensor network would be most suited for places with pre-existing network of routers (ie: city centers with public WiFi).
MESA is unique in its modularity and focus on privacy. We recognize that large scale collection of data (especially video or audio data) would be considered unacceptably intrusive to most of the population. To combat this potential resistance to implementation, we have designed hardware-level privacy features. In much the same way that some computers have hardware design features that always enable an LED if a webcam is powered, MESA utilizes a clock divider circuit to regulate the length of and interval between samples. Hardware level privacy features will provide an impenetrable method of producing unidentifiable data, as well as promoting positive involvement from the community in the project.
A key part of our proposal is the involvement of the community in the design and operation of the sensor network. Early involvement in the design and deployment of the network will help to generate community interest and engagement with the project. We propose to release both code and hardware specifications under an open-source license. This will ensure transparency, and expose our work to the scrutiny of community members - enhancing our ability to manage community expectations and communicate about the way we will collect data.
The community will have the ability to vote on new types of sensors to add to the platform and the standards these sensors must achieve. We plan to make the analysis and results generated by the dataset available to the community, in raw form to encourage Citizen Science and further analysis, and in processed form to aid in decision making and planning within the community.
MESA has the potential to allow us to gather data about our cities at a level of detail and granularity that can only improve as our technologies advance. Our built in, hardware-level privacy features ensure the independence of our citizens, and prevent malicious use of the dataset. MESA’s code and hardware specifications will be released to the world under an open-source licence, paving the way for transparency, accountability and further innovation. Armed with the raw data and processed analytics, citizen scientists and policy makers alike will be more informed and able to make better decisions about the future of our cities.