Getting a sensor of things to come

Learn more about sensors and even build your own at a workshop with experimental electronics developer Robert D Jordan.

Quietly tucked away, almost out of sight, are sensors, dotted all over the City of Melbourne.

They are a quiet army, each with a very specific job: monitoring temperature, noting parking patterns, seeing how full bins get. They are the City’s FitBit, keeping track so that the data can be used to make small tweaks and improvements.

On first mention it might sound like a potential Orwellian nightmare – but Big Brother isn’t actually watching. He couldn’t, even if he wanted to, because sensors are devices which record or measure a physical property – things like wind, temperature, quality of water or air, or movement. They’re not cameras.

Girl with her eyes closed feeling the wind and sun

One use for them is to count pedestrian traffic through Melbourne’s streets, which they do by noting the temperature of the objects which disrupt their beams. Humans occupy a very narrow temperature range, so when something of human-temperature passes by, the sensor notes their presence and records it. Beyond this however, they’re at a loss. They can tell that one of us is there, but since they don’t capture images or audio, they can’t tell one person from another – we all look the same to them.

There are many different types of sensors, and their purpose is to help aid decision making and to guide improvements. Some are used to measure the temperature in laneways before and after vegetation is added to see whether plants will help cool down a particular area. Others measure water level in water tanks and storm water systems to help aid in irrigation management. Using a combination of different kinds of sensors allows us to see how public spaces are being used – whether there are peak times for parking, or whether people are using parks or boulevards.

The gathered information is logged and sent to a server, with the data then being made available on the publicly accessible Open Data Platform.

From here, it can be used to shape future plans. This data gives us a broad range of insights – into retail activity, city transport, walk-ability and safety. To learn more about sensors broadly, you can have a look at Public Lab, which contains real-life examples of how sensors are being used as part of community projects.

In terms of how sensors can and are being used in the City of Melbourne, the potential applications are huge. Showing areas of high pedestrian traffic can mean that perhaps more traffic lights are needed. Tracking the fullness of bins helps us to know how frequently they should be changed. Identifying peak parking times helps with identifying the most efficient time limitations in specific areas. This information allows us to determine the questions we should be asking, and might not otherwise think about – why aren’t people using parks? Why are certain streets being avoided? Then: how can we fix these things? What can we do to make our city better?

Building facade with plants

We don’t see the sensors (unless we’re really looking) – but they see us (kind of). They feed back raw data which can be translated into information, which means we then don’t have to rely on a “one size fits all” approach, instead tailoring city planning to the needs of the public.

Written by Elizabeth Flux