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Forget about costs and practicalities for a minute, and consider what would the world be like if we had environmental sensors everywhere? When taking the Internet of Things (IoT) concept to its greatest extent, sensors could link to our climate control systems, our transport systems, our healthcare systems – adapting to our preferences, improving our health and safety; Doing so in the most energy efficient way possible.

Environmental Sensors

While we may not need sensors everywhere, the cost of extensive sensor deployment to most authorities would likely be too high in the current financial climate. However, like so many things in the modern era (the internet, social media, smart phones) true growth for the IoT depends on citizen engagement; in identifying problems and opportunities, then developing creative solutions.

In a Gartner report from last year, it was estimated that by 2019, “citizen environmentalists” will have deployed more personal sensors, measuring things like air and water pollution, than governments have in countries with well developed economies. “Citizens are becoming more powerful thanks to small, affordable sensors that they can use to collect alternative environmental data”, says Bettina Tratz-Ryan VP at Gartner’s Frankfurt office.

“Ten years ago, [sensors were] in big buildings or these huts centred in downtown areas”, she says. “[Now], we actually have smaller types of sensors that can be either connected to a mobile phone or to a car or a bicycle”.

Smart Citizen kits are a great example. Palm-sized boxes that measure the key air pollutants carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as well as humidity, temperature, and noise levels. Data is uploaded to the Smart Citizen website, which currently shows about 800 kits deployed around the world, more than half of them in Europe. The basic kits cost about $170, before tax and shipping, but the company are trying to get the cost down.

“It’s a tool for people to recover a productive role in cities,” says Tomas Diez, director of Fab Lab Barcelona, which developed the platform. “It influences their political participation, so they can go to the city council and say, ‘You know this street needs to be taken care of’, or ‘We don’t want this park taken up because air quality is going down’”.

Fab Lab started working on the kit back in 2010, and has grown the project through crowd funding campaigns. The first, on Goteo a Spanish platform, raised €14,000 and put 200 kits into circulation. The second, on Kickstarter, generated $68,000 and sent out another 500-plus.

The ultimate goal is to create a worldwide network around local data generation and sharing. “It’s not about people putting a pin on a map. It’s about generating discussions on top of the data. We want this to become a community, and that’s something we’re lacking now”, Diez says. To do that Smart Citizen is going to need money, which has been a problem for similar projects.

Air Quality Egg, for example, is a sensor system designed to allow anyone to collect very high resolution readings of NO2 and CO concentrations outside of their home, but ran into trouble after its main backer pulled out.

Diez hopes to avoid that fate by setting up a company to develop revenue sources from the data. One side will be a social enterprise owned by data providers. The other will be more like a business, and will supply companies with data for their projects. Diez says he’s talking with Cisco and Intel. Both companies are interested in sensor networks that could lead to “smarter cities”.

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Beyond cities and the outdoor environment, sensors are seen as even more crucial inside buildings, particularly in commercial and governmental buildings, responsible for a significant portion of energy consumption. Gartner’s Tratz-Ryan points to San Francisco’s smart city initiative, which placed sensors in public buildings.

“They actually realised that their air conditioning [in] the courthouse, the library, even between the hours of 6 o’clock in the evening to 8 o’clock in the morning, [was] at the same level”, she says. “It’s basically totally wasted energy”.

In San Francisco, a relatively new start-up called Helium is launching a “platform” for putting sensors into every corner of enterprises. Helium is selling the hardware and software for businesses wanting to keep a closer eye on their operations. Helium’s product could be used, for example, to track the condition of goods in a warehouse, monitor air quality in a hospital, or make sure refrigerators stay at a precise temperature.

Be it in homes, businesses or outdoor, cities will be the hotbed for environmental sensor deployment by citizens and authorities. Cities hold half the world’s population, they are the part of society most exposed to traffic, pollution and other elements that sensors promise to monitor and help us tackle.

Already, cities have been among the biggest advocates for ambitious goals of the COP21 Paris climate change talks. “I predict that cities … become the environmental centres of excellence”, says Tratz-Ryan, “because they know. They know what’s going on”.