The Sensors in a Shoebox kit is actually a little smaller than a shoebox, and can be powered by a solar panel the size of a record sleeve. Courtesy of Katherine Flanigan

Instead of deploying urban sensors as instruments of surveillance for technocrats, what if vulnerable communities controlled the gear—and the data?

The buzziest of buzzwords in urban planning is the “smart city”—a metropolis laced with wireless sensors that track everything from weather and water flow to gunshots and foot traffic. The sensing technology, already emerging in cities from Los Angeles to Singapore, might communicate with smartphones to help commuters get to work more smoothly, or send data to local authorities, who can use it to direct services like police, transit, and even trash collection.

Smart cities might be efficient, but most visions of the smart city put the government or corporations in charge of all this technology. Critics worry that cities may get too smart for their own good, reducing people to data-points and dollar signs, hyper-surveilled cogs in a great machine. “The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants,” complained architect Rem Koolhaas in 2014. “We are fed cute icons of urban life, integrated with harmless devices, cohering into pleasant diagrams in which citizens and business are surrounded by more and more circles of service that create bubbles of control.”

But what if citizens themselves could harness the smart city’s sensors and gather their own data, using it to reshape the urban environment in a way that better meets their needs? That’s the intriguing question behind Sensors in a Shoebox, a project to put compact kits of sensors in the hands of Detroit teenagers. Funded by grants from the Knight Cities Challenge and National Science Foundation, it’s a bottom-up approach to urban technology that aims to empower the community, rather than the technocrats. The aim: Help citizens ask questions about their neighborhoods and come up with their own solutions.

Jacquie Handley works with Detroit teens on their survey questions. (Amy Crawford)

On a recent afternoon at Voyageur College Prep High School, a public charter school in Southwest Detroit, half a dozen eighth- and ninth-graders and three grad students from the University of Michigan gather in a sunny upstairs classroom to hone questions for a survey about Detroit’s riverfront. The teens and their mentors plan to use the face-to-face questionnaire alongside several of the sensor kits, which will be deployed to track pedestrian traffic, outdoor temperature, and—most important to the kids—air quality.

“I have asthma,” says eighth-grader Arianna Lowe. “If it’s windy and stuff, if there’s pollen or if it’s really foggy, you won’t be able to breathe.”

Asthma affects nearly one in six Detroit residents. The city’s asthma rate is 40 percent higher than that of Michigan as a whole, and sufferers here are more than three times as likely to wind up in the hospital. And air pollution makes asthma worse. “You can actually smell the air—it smells like cars,” says Lowe’s classmate Leachmie Santiago.

For teens and other laypeople to find engineering useful, it needs to be user-friendly and cheap. That’s where civil engineering grad student Katherine Flanigan comes in. In a basement lab on Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, Flanigan built sensor kits that would be installed along the riverfront and on the roof of Voyageur Prep.

The kits—packed in plastic cases slightly smaller than a shoebox—are built around a wireless sensor node, which is based on technology originally developed by Flanigan’s advisor, Jerry Lynch, to monitor the structural integrity of bridges. Lynch’s “Narada” node is used by civil engineers around the world. Adapting the technology for ordinary citizens required some creativity.

Katherine Flanigan assembles a sensor kit in the lab. (Amy Crawford)

“The Narada node has to be wirelessly connected to a large base nearby,” Flanigan says, pointing to a steel box the size of a dorm refrigerator. “In urban sensing, it’s not really feasible to have a lot of these base stations—they’re expensive, they’re big, and there’s a lot to steal. Also, they require a large solar panel.”

The solution Flanigan came up with was a cellular modem, which allows the node to send data directly to the cloud. The modem also has the advantage of requiring less power—a solar panel the size of an LP record sleeve is plenty. Flanigan designed each node to accommodate four sensors, and users can choose from an assortment that includes a thermometer, a humidity sensor, an accelerometer, sensors for particulate matter or ozone to indicate air pollution, or an infrared sensor that can spot humans or animals.

“It really can be configured exactly to what the students want. Then they flip the switch, and it’s good to go,” Flanigan says. “And the nice thing is the components are just over time getting cheaper and cheaper—some of these components cost pennies, a couple dollars.”

That’s the hardware; for the software, Lynch came up with a simple solution that is bound to appeal to a smartphone-loving generation. The sensor nodes will report directly to Twitter, tweeting out data points on the hour.

As Flanigan hustles to finish building sensor kits in time for a planned deployment in early June, Jocylen Fox, development services coordinator at the non-profit Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, is looking forward to seeing the students’ data. The conservancy is trying to figure out how people are using three-and-a-half miles of parkland and trails along the Detroit River, much of which was until recently surface parking, abandoned piers, and vacant lots. But currently available sensor technology was prohibitively expensive for such a large area; without this project, the conservancy wouldn’t have been able to capture enough data.

“We hope to use this data to be able to improve our spaces and the experience of our visitors—identify any areas of improvement,” Fox says. “I’m really interested to see what they are able to collect and what recommendations they have.”

The usefulness of their work has helped to motivate the teens, who are learning not only how to conduct research but about their own power as citizens. And the researchers hope the sensor kits might eventually be used by anyone seeking to make their cities smarter, whether they’re teens in an after-school program or a coalition of concerned citizens looking to right an urban wrong.

“The real goal of this project is to engage young people in identifying problems in their community and learning to do scientific research to work on solutions,” says Elizabeth Moje, dean of Michigan’s School of Education and a lead researcher for Sensors in a Shoebox. “But it’s absolutely something we can imagine going to a much larger scale. Imagine what could have happened in Flint if the average citizen had a water pollution sensor. It’s really important that we develop citizens who are capable of doing this kind of work.”

First-year Ph.D. student Jacquie Handley, who is leading the education side of Sensors in a Shoebox, is pleased by how the teens brought their own concerns and interests to the project. “There’s a lot of engineering that happens in the world that’s not motivated by the community’s needs,” she says. “I’m interested in getting out of that top-down approach.”

About the Author

Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives outside Boston.

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