If you want to think about what the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) will look like, walk along Boston’s 400-year-old streets. With its deep elite academic and tech connections, the city is a natural place to experiment and see how people react to—or fail to notice—the network of sensors that experts say will be a trillion-dollar business sector by the end of the decade.
Walk down the Rose Kennedy Greenway, an arterial strip of park space that winds through downtown Boston, and soon you’ll come to a Soofa, a park bench that does a lot of work while people are sitting on it. Parked in the greens for the first time this month, the solar panels that cover the Soofa drink in energy from the sky and channel it into USB ports that charge your phone.
More quietly, the Soofas—spread around city parks and the campuses of MIT and Babson College—collect and share information through the Soofa website about air quality and noise level data. That’s data that the municipality can use and locals can monitor to determine if a Soofa location is too loud or smoggy for them—on the latter, think joggers and people with respiratory diseases.
"We are fortunate to have talented entrepreneurs and makers in Boston thinking creatively about sustainability and the next generation of amenities for our residents," Boston mayor Martin Walsh says. The Soofa, for instance, was designed by MIT Media Lab’s spin-off Changing Environments,
Parks like the Greenway, with their daily swarm of texting passersby, were a natural place to pilot the Soofa program, says Kristopher Carter, program director at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics—the mayor’s innovation team within city hall. The city supplied the venue and space to test the bench, and Changing Environments paid for their construction using grants from Cisco and Verizon.
"For the resident, for the visitor, the biggest selling point is that you can sit down and charge your phone," Carter says, but for the city the priorities are better environmental analysis and a better experience in city parks. On the latter issue, Changing Environments’ original prototype was too small to encourage users to congregate. So in a 2.0 version, "There’s a charging station in between you and you’re forced to sit next to each other," Carter says.
Carter foresees a 3.0 version of the bench that relays information about good news (like farmers' markets) and bad news (like inclement weather) nearby.
Like the Soofa, the BigBelly Solar trash cans are branded as solar power, though their big wins are arguably around data transfer. Headquartered in Newton, which sits just inside Boston’s outerbelt, the smart cans notify trash and recycling collectors when it’s time for pickup.
"It’s improved the efficiency to the point that ‘green’ receptacles (no more than 1/5 full) are emptied half as frequently," says Gabrielle Farrell, spokesperson for the City of Boston. "Specifically, ‘Yellow’ or ‘Red’ receptacles (more than 3/5 full) are emptied 1.75 times weekly versus 3.50 times weekly one year ago." That’s half the labor.
There are nearly 500 BigBelly receptacles citywide—and at least one in every state in the nation. They use solar power to compact trash to a 5 to 1 ratio (150 gallons to 30 gallons) compared to a normal barrel. In the 2014 fiscal year, $80 per ton was diverted, city officials say, saving Boston approximately $72,000 last year.
Boston is in the midst of a steady municipal data push. In April, the city brought the "Wicked Free Wi-Fi" network of hotspots throughout the city. Its Citizens Connect app, which debuted in 2009 to allow residents to report potholes, damaged signs, and graffiti, has been responsible for 20% of all citizens requests.
Next up: Smart parking meters. Like other cities, Boston has taken issue with the sell-your-parking-space app Haystack, and has just put out a request for proposals for meters that can be paid by phone and can be monitored by the city. Can the all-seeing meter maid in the cloud be far behind?