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Sensors, Robots and Rivers
Alex Steffen, 20 Aug 07
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Scientists at the Beacon Institute are working with IBM engineers to weave a network of sensors, robots and simulations that will monitor 315 miles of New York's Hudson River on a "minute-to-minute" basis, creating the most complex model ever created of a river's flow.

The Beacon Institute... will use the array of real-time monitoring devices the way a doctor uses the data from a heart monitor, assessing the condition of the river from moment to moment. The comprehensive system, which could be in place within a few years, will provide far more detailed information than has been available before, people involved with the project say. And a new I.B.M. technology will let scientists analyze countless bits of data at the same time that it is being collected.

Knowing a river through technology is cool, of course, but what's really interesting here are the larger implications of the fact that the Hudson project is merely an early data point in what is likely to become a much bigger trend: the wiring of the natural systems of which we are a part, as a means to understand how better to protect them.

And make no mistake. With networked sensors and other tools (like solar robots) becoming less and less expensive, we are quickly reaching a point where anything that's measurable about the environment that we want to know, we will.

Sensors may soon be embedded in all sorts of places and pieces of infrastructure. Some will be personal: sensors in the gardens of absent-minded horticulturalists might keep track of soil moisture and remind them to water, for instance. Others will be public: sensors in sewer pipes that help environmental cops track down people who dump illegal chemicals down storm grates, say. Some will fall somewhere in between, like smart grids linking home energy systems to the wider network.

Of course, using sensors to guide decision-making is nothing new -- we already do this with air pollution and burn bans -- but now these technologies are trending towards ubiquity, offering both granular scientific knowledge of place and flows (think the James reserve on a global scale) and opportunities for observed redesign (for instance, the way power meters inside homes not only change residents' power usage directly -- since people can see when they're wasting energy -- but also offer people the chance to work collaboratively to, for instance, reduce peak demand on a community basis). The point, though, is clear -- if we want to, we can come to know our planet and our lives in startling new ways.

There are a number of questions and potential pitfalls here, too. For instance, might sensor pollution could become a problem itself? But the biggest one is also sort of the simplest to solve: will the data be public and accessible? Unless the data is available for public scrutiny, you lose the ability for people to hack it together into novel forms and configurations (like people do with Google Maps now); and unless it's easily accessible, using it requires info-activists like the folks at to make a point of creating transparency... which is, in many cases, as much a barrier to use as having the data locked up in a proprietary system.

Smarter people than me have said it before, but in order for geo-data to truly matter, people have to use it. Open sharing of data ought to be the assumption. Nothing is said on either the Beacon site or in the Times article about whether or not they'll be sharing the data freely. Let's hope so, since setting that precedent would be almost as visionary itself as their brilliant moves towards modeling an entire river.

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In the European Union the Aarhus Convention provides for a legal presumption that this data (when collected by Government) is public accessible. I believe it is the same in the US.

Though whether its a question of 'one click disclosure' or lengthy and expensive court battles and hundreds of hours of number crunching to get it onto google maps, is another question.

We at are desperate to get our data available for all the mashups we haven't thought of ourselves and are currently consulting on what kind of API would be most useful. The Sunlight Foundation are doing great work on writing a gold standard for XML that will make one set of government data mesh with another.

'One click disclosure' should not just be something for government, but private institutions like Beacon, though it is usually moral pressure rather than legal action that secures disclosure.

Over here in Europe, BirdLife International are working on a new project that uses their database of wild bird populations and's data to make a giant overlay map to illustrate the relationship between farm subsidy intensity and biodiversity. We will certainly push hard to make sure they make their bird data freely available to anyone who wants it.

Posted by: Jack Thurston on 3 Sep 07



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