Edmonton 'Smart City' Data Network Arms Citizens with Facts

A volunteer group of tech experts is creating a low-cost network of sensors in Edmonton that could level the playing field in favour of local citizens when it comes to gathering data.

BetaCity is testing the network to measure air quality, cyclists and foot traffic, but the backbone of the system can make gathering data flexible and economic for anyone. That means data to prove a point in a civic debate or highlight public risks may no longer be something only in the hands of government and big corporations.

“It’s low power, long range, low cost,” said Lydia Zvyagintseva, presenting the public LoRa Network project Wednesday at the Open Data Summit at the Chateau Lacombe

The network could be up within weeks if they get a small grant or an influx of volunteers; current volunteers have been picking away at it more slowly for the past nine months.

Their test sensors are built out of pieces easily ordered online for less than $200. They can run on small solar panels or batteries that can last a year. The network itself will let anyone remotely upload data from a simple sensor and add it to a spread sheet. It’s like wifi, but for tiny packages of data. That means no more time-intensive data collection, hiking to sensors one by one and collecting memory cards. 

“The port cost is negligible; the biggest cost is time,” said Marcin Misiewicz, a local electronics engineer and volunteer, who’s been working on setting this up for about nine months.

“The tech side is exciting. We’re making the smart cities they talked about 10 years ago a reality,” he said, adding these types of networks are already well-used in several European cities, but don’t exist yet in Canada.

BetaCity is experimenting with air-quality tests because Alberta Environment’s monitoring is limited to just a couple of sites in Edmonton. Industry also tests for air quality near individual plants. But this will let citizens get a consistent rating at the street or sidewalk level, where no one is testing now.

“What we doing is not going to replicate the precision of the (Alberta Environment) tests, but it’s good enough to give you an idea,” Misiewicz said. “If there are problem areas, that would warrant further investigation. If you’re not measuring, you don’t know.

BetaCity is a group of volunteers who take on new technology challenges just to make the city a better place.

They were responsible for LinkYEG.ca, a mobile-friendly website that lists all the most important resources for homeless or low-income residents. It gives the phone number, hours of operation and walking directions for everything from the closest free library computers to the 18 places that offer free meals at least once a month.

Once BetaCity created it, proved it works and is helpful, they gave it to the Canadian Mental Health Organization to maintain, said Zvyagintseva.

BetaCity also created a crowd-sourced public art map with 900 entries that city employees later turned into walking tours. They’re also hoping to soon release a simple online tool to help people calculate what social government benefits they might be eligible for.

“Projects are always on the good, it’s like herding cats,” Zvyagintseva said with a laugh.

She’s a librarian who does this during her off hours, leading the group with volunteer David Rauch, who is also a city employee in the open data and innovation branch. The group meets the last Wednesday of each month at Startup Edmonton.

Story Tags:  AlbertaCollaborationConnectivityInnovationInternet of ThingsOpen Data