Usman Haque: Sensors and Napkins

After three long days of workshops, on Friday it was finally time for the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference event. Usman Haque was one of the day’s keynote speakers. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Pachube, an online hub for open and distributed data collection for the Internet of Things. Thousands of sensors are hooked up to this network and data pours in from all corners of the world. Of course, collecting data is nice and all, but where it gets interesting is when you start thinking about what you can do with this data. Even more so, things get really interesting when you start thinking about how this information can inspire other people. For Haque, this is what Pachube is all about.


Haque went on to explain by referring back to the early days of the Web. Back then the Web already consisted of many, many pages, but it was difficult to navigate. Most people simply did not know what was out there, nor was there an easy way to discover new things. This changed when Yahoo! started cataloging the Web and created a directory for people to browse. Suddenly, the Web became far more accessible. This enabled people to discover new things and, as Haque was keen to emphasize, each new discovery can lead people to new creative ideas. Inspiration through exposure, so to speak.

Pachube was launched with the same idea in mind. With commercially available sensor technology becoming cheaper and open source hardware platforms like Arduino reaching maturity, it’s become easier than ever to collect and share large quantities of data. What Yahoo! did for the Web, Pachube hopes to do for the world on a much larger scale. By gathering data, Haque hopes it will inspire people to be more active and creative by giving insight into things that were hitherto inaccessible or simply unknown.

One recent example, mentioned by Haque, was the grid of Geiger counters that now exists in the Fukushima area surrounding the shutdown power station. As with many things, this grid started small. At first there was only one Geiger counter, but it wasn’t even close to Fukushima. It might have been a sensor somewhere in a Kyoto science lab set up to measure background radiation. It’s particular reason for being active isn’t that important, however. What is, is that this single sensor inspired people to set up a whole grid of Geiger counters close to Fukushima so that the everyone could have access to real-time data about the radiation levels in the area without having to rely on government reports or newscasts.

One more example I’d like to single out is Haque’s project to measure the air quality in Barcelona. Generally, Haque explained, air quality sensors are placed out of reach of citizens, on top off buildings or up high against walls. Of course, people don’t live, walk and breath on top off buildings, they do so on the street level. Haque’s solution to this mismatch was to send a team of students out into into the streets of Barcelona and have them wipe down street level surfaces with paper napkins. This, of course, is a very low-tech yet intuitive way to measure air born particulate in the area. It is perhaps not the most accurate nor rigorous scientific method to use, but that is not its primary concern. The strengths of this methodology are twofold. First, it actively involves people in the act of measuring. Having to pay close attention to the grime and particulate on the streets makes one far more likely to start caring and to actively support a more environmentally sound way of life. Second, many passers-by on the street were intrigued by what the students were doing. Admittedly, the fact that they were wearing mouth masks made them stand out rather easily, but the important thing is that people were interrupted in their routines and stopped to think about the pollution in their city.

This is what Haque’s work is really about. He likes to trigger people. It might take a worldwide network of sensors or it might just take a paper napkin, the key idea behind all of his work is to get people to engage with their surroundings, to be active, to be critical. This is exactly the overall point that Social Cities of Tomorrow is trying to make. It’s about the people, not the technology.

About Laurent Hubeek

Hi. My involvement with Social Cities of Tomorrow is primarily as a blogger. I intend to be present for several of the workshop sessions and presentations and hope to write some interesting reports on the event as a whole, its background and the workshop outcomes. I have a background in IT and information science and recently participated in the New Media master's program at the University of Amsterdam. I'm interested in how new technologies influence society in fundamental ways. The application of new technologies can lead to fascinating new insights or possibilities that were previously unimaginable. I'm also interested in video games (for leisure and as a research topic), experimental architecture, abandoned or hidden architecture, art installations and a wide variety of music.
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