Home PublicationsCommentary The Rise of the Citizen Sensor

The Rise of the Citizen Sensor

by Joshua New

As sensor-laden devices proliferate the consumer marketplace, an increasing number of people are voluntarily contributing the data they generate to improve public spaces. Sometimes referred to as the “citizen sensor”, this recent trend is not just limited to activists and data enthusiasts—rather, it encompasses regular, everyday citizens empowered by a new generation of connected technologies that makes it easier than ever to contribute their data for the public good. Citizen data allows municipal governments to tackle problems that would otherwise require resource intensive sensor networks and manpower to address. Citizen sensor data is being used for many purposes including to improve public infrastructure, enhance public services, and increase public safety. Local government leaders should look to the ever increasing number of citizen sensors to augment their capacity to use data to make better decisions.

In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has been using an app it developed called Street Bump, which utilizes smartphone accelerometer and GPS data to determine the location of potholes on roads. Over time, the city can use this data to identify where road improvements are needed and prioritize the areas most in need of repair. Without Street Bump, Boston residents would have spend much more time and effort to report potholes in their neighborhoods.

In Oregon, the Department of Transportation is relying on citizen sensors to make roads safer for the state’s many cyclists. ORcycle, an app developed by Portland State University, lets users submit trip data, record their routes, and report crashes, safety issues, and infrastructure problems they encounter on their bike rides. As the app was just released at the end of last year, the Department of Transportation is still waiting on enough data to make any changes, though the data submitted by users will be mapped and publicly available in early 2015. As Portland, Oregon has the highest percentage of bicycle commuters of any North American city, not only will there likely be an abundance of citizen sensors contributing to this dataset, but the insights derived from this data could mean improved safety for thousands.

Around the world, citizen sensors are helping tackle a much more widespread problem—air quality. Using the Air Quality Egg, a sensor system that takes high accuracy readings on nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide levels, the two gases most indicative of urban air pollution, concerned citizen sensors can monitor the air quality outside their home and share this data for others to freely access. The Air Quality Egg was developed by a community of Internet of Things enthusiasts that wanted to develop more accurate, location-specific air quality data than the government could provide. For under $200, citizen sensors can set up an Air Quality Egg outside their home and contribute their air quality data to the community. Users also have the option to attach more types of sensors to their Air Quality Egg and measure things like air particulates and ozone in the air. With better and more granular air quality data, policymakers would able to make more informed decisions about pollution and public health issues.

As data is increasingly being used to improve policymaking, governments on all levels should look to the citizen sensor as a valuable, cost effective means of collecting data that can be used for public benefit. While a city may not have the technical capability or the human or financial resources required to operate a large, distributed sensor network that can help it monitor public infrastructure integrity or air quality, city leaders will find no shortage of citizens willing to contribute their data to these ends. As more advanced sensors come to consumer devices and adoption of the Internet of Things grows, the citizen sensor will be a powerful tool in data-driven governance.

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