Posted by Davina Jackson on 31 Oct 2013

Citizen scientists from Beckenham School use a water chemical testing kit on the Avon River.

Citizen scientists from Beckenham School in Christchurch test the Heathcote River for chemicals. [Sensing City.]

Christchurch’s new Sensing City group is working with international research laboratories to test several small mass-market monitoring devices to help solve environmental and community challenges.

The trials are helping to pioneer an emerging public sector strategy known as crowdsourcing or volunteered geographic information. VGI is proving helpful for government agencies tackling public emergencies, and is included in international policies for developing national and global spatial data infrastructure (SDI) systems.

Sensing City is a social technologies venture based at Christchurch’s innovation incubator hub. It is financially supported by NZ infrastructure and fuels corporations Infratil and Z Energy, and government agency Callaghan Innovation. Trustees are Roger Dennis (from several European social technology enterprises), infrastructure and utility finance expert Richard MacGeorge, and public strategy advisor Sacha McMeeking.

As the group’s ‘driver’, Dennis is promoting initial public trials and government support for projects where ‘citizen scientists and reporters’ can collect local information via remote sensing systems built into small mobile devices – then upload geo-tagged environmental data to publicly accessible maps and apps. His current proposals are:

— Little Water Sensor kits have been used by 190 Christchurch school children to test local water sources (especially the Avon River) for NO, PH, GH and KH chemicals. Users dip a card of test strips into water, activate an app via the  littlewatersensor.com/start website, take a photo of the test strips, check the colours of the strips against colours on screen, and upload the GPS-tagged images to contribute to a crowd-sourced database – publicly accessible via a map on the site. Dennis says that researchers at MIT’s Little Sensor Devices Lab are improving the system to help villagers in developing countries test water for drinking and hygiene.

— Humidity and air quality (especially around Christchurch schools) are being tested with inhaler (puffer) kits of the type used by asthma (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/COPD) sufferers. The inhalers can record users’ locations, times of use and quantities of medication inhaled. Dennis says the puffer devices could link to a city-wide network of small sensor packs (sensordrone.com) that could help check correlations between air conditions and outbreaks of asthma/COPD. More effective management of urban air quality could help reduce public health expenditure on COPD patients (who often require 12-48 hours of hospital time per serious attack).

—Christchurch’s unpredictable traffic blockages (caused by its extraordinary density of reconstruction and demolition roadworks) are being mapped online. The task for government agencies is to co-ordinate and publicly communicate (in advance and real-time) all the operations of workers that will affect traffic flows, particularly at peak periods. A public traffic map app for mobile devices could be expanded to include atmospheric information from a city grid of Sensordrone devices: these already are programmed to record ambient temperature, humidity, air pressure, IR temperature, illuminance, precision gas (CO), proximity capacitants, external voltage, altitude and battery voltage.

Dennis says ‘I’m astounded about how small these [Sensordrone] kits are now and they cost less than $200. You can clearly see where the path is going. Schools and citizens can start using these to test environmental conditions and feed information into public contexts, without waiting for civic authorities to deem that they will do something to fix problems for citizens. We can open up the data for a wide range of community benefits.’

Dennis expects faster and more technology-savvy decisions from the new Lord Mayor, Lianne Dalziel, and her Labour-majority council, elected in early October 2013.