Innovation Starts with Trying Something New

Last week I was thrilled to be part of a Smart City Hackathon hosted by @Comcast and @TechnicallyPHL. Civic tech is at the forefront of my interests in building creative places in cities, and I was curious about LoRa. As part of a long and convoluted Connecticut Innovation initiative, I’ll be leading a GIG WiFi project in Stamford, amongst a few other things. But the real challenge facing most cities start with simple quality of life issues; or the infamous potholes, trash and snow removal, and traffic. So figuring out better ways of addressing quality of life issues through civic tech projects is one way to look at it.

LoRa has one hugely important advantage over most of the civic tech infrastructure projects that I look at. In addition to being low power and long range, it doesn’t require you to dig up the streets in order to install. LoRa is basically a wireless LAN that allows a device to communicate to a backend gateway over long distances, without requiring that the device is connected to the electrical grid, or even in a static location. While my futurist-self easily accepts that one day my refrigerator will order a case of lime-seltzer before I notice I’m about to run out– my civic tech-self sees the immediacy of being able to sensor a remote trash bin located in a public park and trigger an alert when it gets full.

One area where the intersection of zoning, neighborhoods and the creative economy collides, is the issue of noise. Whether you live in an urban city, suburban cul-de-sac or something in between, any community 311 call-center log will be filled with complaints about noise. The usual suspects, commercial activity that relates to either construction, landscaping, or delivery; or creative economy nightlife whether it is concerts, events, or nightclubs; or simply the endless symphony of leafblowers. Noise is a hard to manage problem.

Most enforcement about noise issues starts with someone generating a complaint, which then leads to someone going to investigate the matter. That someone goes to the site, pulls out a sound meter and depending on the laws and regulations either issues a fine, warns the culprit or does nothing. This process is a reactive one, that is costly from a labor standpoint, and most of the time doesn’t result in a happy outcome since the noise often persists and returns.

Like most solutions, there’s no easy one size fits all service or device that can address every type of noise violation incident. But for those that require permitting of some sort, it seems like an IoT solution might be a step in the right direction. Imagine a device that records sound over a specified level and/or time period. That log of occurrences where the noise level exceeds the permitted allowance is sent to the enforcement body, or triggers an investigation, or alerts the site to a potential problem. This real-time observational record changes the ability to document and understand the nature of noise emanating from a site.

This real-time data log was the use case I had thought about when I went down to the hackathon. At the time, I was thinking more about being able to permit the boutique high-tech manufacturers in a commercial business zone because there would be a way to show that noise was not an impediment to the quality of life in that neighborhood. Same type of issue in allowing a dance studio to occupy a mixed-use building, or a brewpub to occupy a heavily pedestrian neighborhood. In all cases, the concern about noise generated by delivery trucks, machinery or people.

I was lucky enough to find other hackers at the event who were interested in using the MachineQ tech developed by Comcast to solve the noise problem in different ways. Gunshot detection, criminal activity, and crime prevention were other ideas that we worked through. In the end, the IoT device we built, NoiseSniffer, demonstrated that you could build a low-cost battery-operated sensor, trigger a log into the could through a clearblade server, and proof of concepted our way to a 2nd place finish in the hackathon.

Naturally, some good things are about to happen as a result of this. Further development on the NoiseSniffer concept prototype is already happening with my team. I’ve introduced the LoRa technology to my Stamford Partnership board and plan on integrating the technology platform and new partners into the Stamford Innovation District. In the Norwalk 2.0 container project, LoRa is now a new tool as part of our interactive art installation. So in the end, trying something new– attending a hackathon about an unfamiliar technology– has led to innovation with immediate impact. And did I mention that this was fun?

When I think about what makes cities vibrant and interesting, it often leads to the observation that a city is really nothing more than a collection of people. When people get together to do collective things, they create that vibrancy. A hackathon on its own doesn’t create that collective activity unless there is a sense of civic purpose. The Comcast Smart City hackathon wildly exceeded my expectations about how to approach civic tech projects in the future. They took an innovative approach in creating a purpose, environment, and technology to allow people to explore a way to solve collective problems. All of the teams produced concepts, ideas, and prototypes that focused on how to make their city better. That alone would have made my field-trip worthwhile, but the inspiration that I brought back home is the more awesome outcome.