A Grassroots Environmental Sensor Network, So You Don’t Need The Government To Say The Air Is Okay

With hundreds of sensor kits already distributed across the U.S. and Europe, the Smart Citizens network is helping people play a more active role in the management of their cities.

Relying on governments to monitor the environment is all very well, but governments are limited by budgets, politics, and manpower. There’s only so much they can do to ensure the air is decent and the noise level isn’t crushing your sanity.


That’s where cheap sensors distributed to a community can help. And if you want a good example of that, look no further than the Smart Citizen network. It is the world’s largest independent environmental sensing network, and its potential is bigger. In the future, we may not need governments to tell us the air is okay.

At the heart of the Smart Citizen project is a kit with sensors for carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, temperature and humidity, light, and sound. The palm-sized module fixes outside a window or on a balcony, where it starts recording local conditions. A website and mobile app visualize the data and allow users to share their perspective with an online community.

“It’s a tool for people to recover a productive role in cities,” says Tomas Diez, director of Fab Lab Barcelona, which developed the platform. “It influences their political participation, so they can go to the city council and say, ‘You know this street needs to be taken care of,’ or ‘We don’t want this park taken up because air quality is going down.”‘

Fab Lab started working on the kit back in 2010, and has grown the project through crowdfunding campaigns. The first, on Goteo, a Spanish platform, raised 14,000 euros and put 200 kits into circulation. The second, on Kickstarter, generated $68,000 and sent out another 500-plus. The video above is from that campaign last summer.

Diez says there are about 120 kits installed in the U.S., with another 400 set up in Europe, and the rest scattered elsewhere. The city of Amsterdam has paid for one 100-unit batch, which it is distributing now. “It’s interesting because it’s not a city developing infrastructure. It’s acquiring infrastructure that the citizens are going to develop,” Diez says. “I think it enriches a discussion about who is actually responsible for the management of the city.”

The ultimate goal is to create a worldwide network around local data generation and sharing. “It’s not about people putting a pin on a map. It’s about generating discussions on top of the data. We want this to become a community, and that’s something we’re lacking now,” Diez says.


To do that Smart Citizen is going to need money, which has been a problem for similar projects. For example, Air Quality Egg (covered here) ran into trouble after its main backer pulled out.

Diez hopes to avoid that fate by setting up a company to develop revenue sources from the data. One side will be a social enterprise owned by data providers. The other will be more like a business, and will supply companies with data for their projects. Diez says he’s talking with Cisco and Intel. Both companies are interested in sensor networks that could lead to “smarter cities.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.