Tag Archives: iot

Measure Your City / Meetjestad.nl

Now that we moved from Enschede to Amersfoort two weeks ago, we are starting to participate in local activities. Today I joined a workshop to build a sensor-hut for the ‘Measure your city‘ project. Initiated by amongst others ‘De War‘, also the people who started FabLab Amersfoort, it is a project to crowdsource measurements to track climate and climate changes inside the city.

The national metereological institute does not measure inside cities as it does not provide data that can be compared with other measurements across the country. By building a dense grid of sensors across the city it becomes possible however to track the emergence of ‘heat islands’ or see how paving over gardens or making them greener influences the city’s microclimates.

The sensor-hub I built this afternoon is based on Arduino, and uses LoRaWan, by means of the The Things Network, to communicate. It currently holds sensors for temperature and humidity, but is prepared to also measure sunlight exposure, rain fall and soil humidity / aridity. It also has a GPS antenna, to capture the location of the device correctly.

It had been a good while since I last handled a soldering iron, but following the ‘fit for all’ building instructions after a while I ended up with a ready device. After loading the right software, it became sensor 51 in the Measure Your City network. The second stage was building a hut for the sensor device, so it measures adequately: shielded from direct sunlight, with air allowed to float around it. This so it matches up with the standards that normal metereological measurements adhere to. After a few hours me and half a dozen or so others had their own sensor-hut to install at home.

the finished device

the hut for the sensors

I haven’t properly installed the device yet: the hut still needs a white coat of paint to reflect sunlight, before mounting it in our garden at about 2 meters height. It is already taking measurements however, and it can be followed through the online database of the network’s measurements. If you look at the current data for my sensor 51, you see it also hasn’t measured its location yet. If that persists as I properly mount it outside, there might be something wrong with the GPS antenna. The temp readings are still in-house readings, and do not reflect outside temperatures.

hello world: first data log entries

I will be running a The Things Network gateway in the near future (when the Kickstarter project delivers) as well, and helped initiate a LoRaWan/The Things Network group in my previous home city Enschede. Building this sensor-hut is the first foray into exploring how I will use that cheap IoT infrastructure currently emerging in the Netherlands. I am looking to add other sensors, along the lines of what e.g. FabLab Barcelona and Waag Society have created with the smart citizen kit, or this project from Freiburg measuring particulate matter in the air.

UPDATE: GPS is working now that the sensor is placed outside. Still need to paint it white though.

Meetjestad.nl sensorhut
Sensor hut in its intended spot in the garden

First TTN Enschede Meet-Up A Success

Last Thursday the first TTN Enschede Meet-up was held. The Things Network (TTN) is an open infrastructure, using LoRaWan, which lets Internet of Things (IoT) devices communicate data to the cloud, from which it can be approached over regular internet connections.

What fascinates me in this, is that one can implement a city or region wide infrastructure for very little money, where normally the infrastructure is the expensive part. Especially after the TTN Amsterdam initiators ran a kickstarter campaign offering the gateways for just 200 Euro, last October. With several volunteers here in Enschede, we can quickly achieve city wide coverage, and open it up to all comers. And that is what is indeed happening, as it looks like at least 6 gateways will become available in the city soon. One gateway, which Timothy at Innovalor placed on top of the highrise of the University of Applied Sciences Saxion in the city center, is already operational, since last week. The rest will follow in June.

The meeting last Thursday of fifteen TTN and IoT interested people in Enschede was a good first encounter. Besides getting to know eachother, it was good to exchange ideas, experiences, and talk about what we could actually do once the infrastructure is in place.

As it turns out, thinking about use cases is not easy, and that will definitely need more thought and discussion.

Meanwhile one of the participants, JP, showed his LoRaWan device that measures signal strength of the mentioned gateway. On his mobile phone he combines those measurements with his phone’s GPS location. This way he built a signal strength map of the Saxion gateway while cycling around town over the course of his normal activities. The LoRaWan receiver and the map are shown below. As it turns out more people are currently doing this type of wardriving, trying to crowdsource a coverage map of the Netherlands.

LoRaWan wardriving results Enschede

Building an IoT Infrastructure for My City

Earlier this year a group of Internet of Things enthusiasts in a month or so launched an open communication infrastructure across the entire city of Amsterdam, enabling anyone to let their IoT devices communicate. Without the need for 4G, Wifi or BT connections, it uses LoRaWan, which allows low bandwith but long range traffic, at low energy usage levels. They call it The Things Network.

Currently The Things Network is running a Kickstarter campaign to bring LoRaWan devices into the hands of more people, and thus create IoT infrastructure in more cities. The gateways on offer cost about 20% of what similar devices cost, and this is a great opportunity to implement a solid city wide infrastructure at very low cost. With an old fraternity friend, Ian Kennedy, we are now looking to create such an infrastructure for my hometown Enschede.

The Things Network from Soda Content on Vimeo.

Enschede is a town of about 160.000 people, and covering the city will require 3 or 4 gateways, to which nodes and devices can connect to communicate. Both Ian and I ordered a gateway through the Kickstarter campaign, and are now looking to connect to more people locally with an interest in IoT. Ideally one or two others will also fund a gateway, ensuring city wide coverage. The coverage between the two of us is shown in the image at the top, and as you can see especially the southern suburbs still need coverage. We will likely also reach out to companies and the city government to see who else is interested in experimenting with this new infrastructure. As delivery of the devices is scheduled for late spring next year, still a long time away, we have plenty of time to get the ball rolling before that.

Interested in making Enschede IoT ready? Join the newly created mailing list Things Enschede (running on my own mail server), and/or help create the infrastructure by adding hardware through the TheThingsNetwork Kickstarter campaign. We will aim to organize a meet-up in November to get local conversations going.

If there are a few others willing to join us, we will certainly add Enschede to the growing list of cities in the The Things Network community. UPDATE: Others are indeed also active, and have been arranging gateways too. That ensures we will have enough hardware to get city wide coverage up and running. Meanwhile a local Enschede community page has been opened, but not yet filled.

Three Prototypes For Everything

Matt Webb, during his presentation at ThingsCon discussing the development of Little Printer said:

We make three prototypes for everything.

A technical prototype (electronics etc.), a ‘what it looks like’ prototype (design), a ‘how it works’ prototype (interaction design).


Look what I'm getting a demo of!! #nerdbrag
Little Printer, photo by Dennis Crowley, CC-BY

What the Internet of Things Is (Not)

Another element I want to highlight from the ThingsCon opening keynote by Alex Deschamps-Sonsino (Designswarm), is her discussion of what the internet of things (IoT) is and is not.

Of course the internet of things, just like any other technology is only a novel and separate subject by itself as long as it is the exception and not mainstream. Right now we are simply somewhere on the continuum between early human computer interaction and normal regular life. At the singularity point, or perhaps better, the vanishing point, an everyday object will ‚simply’ be smart, and we’ll just get on with it.

the continuum to normal life
slide from the keynote

This autonomy and smartness in everyday objects where it is relevant, does not equate automation, nor only smartness. It also means playing well with others (objects / interfaces / people, through APIs), and it means being connected to the internet as the underlying substrate, so it can become a grid or platform of objects and can be built upon.

One of the slides is shown below as a handy comparison chart.

Smart vs Connected

Deconstruction of the Smart Fridge

The deconstruction of the smart fridge is one of things I took away from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s opening key-note at ThingsCon.

I think I have heard versions of the ‚smart fridge’ ever since I first went online 25 years ago, even before the web. Alex presented it as a typical ‚males who never use a kitchen dreaming up a use case for what they imagine (mostly) females do in there’ situation.
The current incarnation of the smart fridge is I think one with an iPad glued to the front of it. Or the one that has a proper place for everything so it can determine if you’re running out of milk. (A much better use for that is automatic charging for minibars in hotels, as I encountered in Stockholm, where indeed everything does have its place.)

as alternative, smart fridge

Slide from Alex keynote

It’s not about the fridge!” Unless its power got cut, it needs servicing, is about to break or explode, there’s nothing you need to hear from your fridge. It is about our behavior and the groceries we buy. The state of the food in your fridge is of course important, so Alex showed an app she prototyped, Pntry, as alternative that keeps track of when you last bought something. If you last bought milk 200 days ago and it is still sitting in the fridge, better have it removed by a biohazard crew, and not use it anymore. If it was a spice you bought 200 days ago, that’s fine.

In his talk later in the day, on a similar note, Matt Webb, discussed the ‚smart’ washing machine they hacked from a regular Zanussi. „We put it on the matrix, it still thinks it is a normal washing machine.” They added a button you press when you are about to run out of detergent etc. It only puts it on your normal shopping list, as it is at the washing machine you notice if you’re about to run out of detergent. Again it isn’t about the machine but your surrounding flow of behavior.

Unsurprisingly at Re:Publica, Germany’s largest annual gathering of internet techies, the smart fridge reared its ugly head this morning. This one was dreamt up to tweet its power usage to compare it with others of similar type. Not that tweeting that info is a good way to gather data, nor is adding more power consumption to measure the same.

On that note, can we now say goodbye to the smart fridge (and the washing machine), and not let it reincarnate yet again and again in the internet of things? Can we make this the Alex’ Law: whoever mentions the smart fridge as a viable use case first loses any argument about internet, of things or otherwise. Only to be met with “It’s not about the fridge!

ThingsCon Opening Key-Note: Alex Deschamps-Sonsino on IoT

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino gave the opening key-note at ThingsCon, in her usual thought provoking way backed up by conviction and active experience. There is much to take home from her presentation and resulting discussion in general, but much more so in particular which I will do in a few separate postings, to be able to connect it to other thoughts and take-aways from the conference. For now, here are the slides to her presentation.

Far too little key-notes do what they should: be a kernel for conversation and interaction, while otherwise not getting in the way of the same. This keynote was exactly fit for purpose.

Designing Discreetness

How do you design applications that remove screens, and not add more rectangles of light to your environment? A lot of public screens are ignored, ‚banner blindness’ manifesting itself physically. Screens may get in the way even, distracting you, like some car UI’s.

At the first day of ThingsCon I attended a workshop Designing Discreetness by Sami Niemelä of Nordkapp, who invited us to explore with him ways of removing screens, and get to more discreet designs. Think of a butler who anticipates your desires, and is there at the right moment, but otherwise gets out of the way.


Sami, the workshop host, described the workshop as “Our homes, workplaces and vehicles are being saturated with glowing rectangles, all competing from our attention. We augment ourselves with pieces of glass we carry, and we are at the dawn of an era where all the world’s data is accessible to us everywhere, all the time. There must be a better way. I believe the answer to cracking this is creating and experimenting with smart, connected things that are silent, behave well, and play nicely with others. How to approach connected physical objects and the attached services as a medium for something larger, instead of the thing itself? Join me in 90-minute workshop where we will discuss and sketch the new frontiers and behaviors for the post screen world ahead of us. Because someone has to.”

The workshop felt like a good fit for me, because Sami used the urban touch screens in Helsinki as a trigger. When we were in Helsinki 18 months ago I also noticed those screens and that they were unused and thus disfunctional.

Sami explained how with wearables and connected things we’re still very much in the innovators and maybe early adopters phase, and that robustness, natural language vs gestures, privacy vs proximity, and useful for mainstream vs niche experts are still aspects in need of a lot of attention.

He then took us through a work format, reminiscent of the Spimes workshop I did in Lisbon at SHiFT in 2008, and the open data workshops I do myself:

Choose one of the following to improve / brainstorm around:

1. ATMs
2. Car UIs
3. Public information screens
4. Shop transactions
5. Wearables
6. Something else

Pick one or more from each of the following:

What: private / personal / shared / common / public
How: haptics + screens + touch + voice + other = 100%
When: Now / next year / in 3 years / in 5 years or more

There was also a card game, again reminiscent of my open data workshop, that provided inputs, APIs and outputs, out of the combination of which you had to build an application.

Designing Discreetness Designing Discreetness

Then generate ideas for a different approach.
I was in a group that worked on public information screens.

Two notions came up early on. One, that these screens may be obsolete because of mobile phones, and are a digital replacement of earlier fixed info points like maps etc. So making them interactive etc may not actually be useful. Two, we treat them like adverts and ignore them, but those adverts are only there to pay for the screens, so if we find a different way to finance it we can do without adverts.

I shared the idea of a park or street bench that changes color according to air quality, pollen and/or particulate matter (which came up during an open data workshop once). The color signals if it is ok to sit there, and there is no need to actually share the underlying environmental information in much detail, so no screen needed.
If you can move the information into existing street furniture, you also bypass the financial constraints that necessitates advertising: all that street furniture has its own budget cycles.

We did see a need for more sensors, to be able to better contextualize information public screens share. E.g. if it is raining maybe adapt information shared towards indoor activities etc.

Moving away from fully public screens to e.g. more personal apps, we suggested that maybe info-apps could learn or recognize me as a repeat visitor. If I am in a new city, I may have a need the first day for information on how to get by metro from the hotel to the conference. On the second day I already know that, so maybe I want to hear more about things along the way, or an event that evening close to where I am. An application that helps you quickly establish a rhythm in your new environment.

Designing Discreetness Designing Discreetness

Designing Discreetness

I enjoyed the workshop, although I was pretty much out of energy at the end of a long day. The ‚recipe’ we used I will add to my thinking toolbox.

Update: Sami posted the slides and notes of the workshop