Assaf Biderman on Creating SENSEable Cities (Podcast)


Assaf Biderman and his team at MIT's SENSEable City Lab are pushing the boundaries of how we organize and visualize the metropolis. They've embedded GPS sensors into household trash and tracked it through the waste stream, conceived aquatic robots that slurp up oil spills, and created the Copenhagen Wheel, a clever add-on that turns your bicycle into a mobile weather station while helping you climb hills.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: SENSEable City Lab does so much stuff, I have this image of an absolutely magical place. Give us a snapshot of what SENSEable City Lab is.

Assaf Biderman: The SENSEable City Lab is about six years old and it's at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. We're looking particularly at how cities are changing because information and small, miniaturized technologies are becoming part of our everyday physical environment. Think of what happened in the past 15 years: computers have become small, they've left the house, they've detached themselves from walls, became networked. In a sense, you could imagine that almost every object could be empowered by some digital capacity today. So think about our networks in the city like cell phone network, energy networks, transportation networks.

Think about the devices we carry in our pockets-cell phones are very powerful computers and can become sensors distributed in the environment. So basically, stuff around us starts talking back, and that we can get a pretty good picture, in real time, of what's happening in the city. You can understand where energy availability is, what's the air quality in one place or another, how masses of people move or where objects are. The sky is the limit.

When you get this sort of real-time picture of what's going on, you can process this information and feed it back into the city so that things could start functioning more efficiently, systems could synchronize, and people could make more informed decisions as they move around or use the city. And what we're seeing now is a change that some say is going to be as radical as the Industrial Revolution on our built environment.

TH: One of the initiatives that's come out of SENSEable City Lab is this one that seeks to track garbage as it moves through the waste stream. Tell us how that works.

Biderman: This is a project we did in Seattle with Waste Management, Qualcomm, and Sprint. The idea there was to ask, "Where does our trash really go?" Seattle has a state-of-the-art waste removal system. They're very adamant about recycling and waste processing in a way that has a minimal impact on the environment. But today, the system has become so complex, yet there's so little understanding about it.

Think of how much we know about the supply chain. If you take something like a computer today and you open it up, you can scan half the components inside and know exactly where they were made. You can understand where the thing was assembled, even distribution centers. You can get a global map of how this machine came together and brought all the way to you.

Yet when you throw it away, we have some belief it's taken care of correctly. But we often see stories about things treated the wrong way, exported to different countries around the world illegally. And we are asking with this project if we can use small miniaturized network sensors to follow trash around.

TH: Now is the idea to make our garbage trackable, or to just get insight into where it goes when we toss it out?

Biderman: We invited 500 households in Seattle who collected a total of 3,000 items of trash based on a list we developed together with the recycling specialists. The idea was to track a representative sample of the average household waste production. Then our team in Seattle went to these people's homes and helped them attach these trackers, that we developed at MIT, to their trash. And the trackers could tell you where they are anywhere in the world for a whole year on a single charge of their battery.

We asked them to throw the trash away as if we were never there. Once they threw it away they got an email with a realtime map of where their trash actually is. And over time, we collected 3,000 traces that gave us insight into, first of all, the structure of the waste removal system. And second of all, how long it takes for different things to process, where to be processed and where they actually end up.

We tracked it by trash type. We knew exactly what each object was. So you can see how quickly and where glass gets treated, paper, metal, e-waste, household hazardous waste. It was a very detailed observation, bringing to light something of an invisible system.

TH: One of the projects that you guys did that really captured people's imagination, especially here at TreeHugger, was the Copenhagen Wheel. Tell us how that works.

Biderman: This project we did in partnership with the City Hall in Copenhagen, with the mayor's office. That was back in 2007 when we started. The Lord Mayor back then mentioned to us that there is this big event, the UN Climate Summit at the end of 2009, hosted in the city. And she wanted to share with the world innovative projects done in Copenhagen and maybe send them home with a message. The focus we decided to zoom in on was, "how can we attract more people to biking?"

Think of cities today like Beijing, like Tokyo, like LA. They were really designed around cars in terms of their master plan. And if you want to think about mode shift, about using different types of vehicles to move around, we really need to rethink some of them.

So we decided to focus on biking and look at, first of all, extending their range, making going uphill easier. So we created this insert that you can plug into any bike. It's a self-contained unit. You don't need any wires or battery. It's in the back wheel. It captures your energy when you break, puts it in a set of batteries and then when you pedal forward it gives you a push automatically. Or you can set how much support you want to get from the motor. So you can tell it to make you twice as strong or three times as strong.

All of this is controlled by Bluetooth on your smart phone via an app we developed. And then there's a sensor that measures your torque, the energy you put in when pedaling, and multiplies that by however much you set on the phone. So the feeling when you ride is like you've just become much stronger or you've lost half your weight. It's a very nice seamless experience of using this wheel.

And then with the energy collected we also power up an onboard computer, and that is connected to four environmental sensors. We have NOx, CO, relative humidity, and temperature. There is a GPRS and a GPS, so you know the wheel location and it's always online.

And then the rider can get realtime information about the quality of air he or she breathes, and also some statistics about how many calories you burn etc.

There's also an option of sharing, so you can share your data with your community. And then everybody generates together a map of air quality in the city, on the street level, which is really where you want to measure.

We've learned that when you cross the street, sometimes there can be a threefold increase in pollutant level just because of the urban canyon effect, for example. And in most cities today, air quality metering is done with a few sensors that are very precise, very expensive, and put very high up. So you don't get measurement down at the street level.

Here we're doing something with sensors that are very cheap, very distributed, and moving around-it's a way to crowdsource air quality monitoring.

Assaf Biderman on Creating SENSEable Cities (Podcast)
Assaf Biderman and his team at MIT's SENSEable City Lab are pushing the boundaries of how we organize and visualize the metropolis. They've embedded GPS sensors into household trash and tracked it through the waste stream, conceived aquatic robots that

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