Every New York City winter brings stories of residents shivering in their apartments, despite strict laws requiring landlords keep their properties adequately warm.
The city receives hundreds of thousands of heat-related complaints every season, and angry New Yorkers can be left waiting for inspectors to verify the complaints or compiling pen-and-paper temperature logs to bring to housing court in an effort to force property owners to take action.
This year, a project launched from the Flatiron School, a Manhattan professional programming academy, aims to make this process easier, especially for some of the city’s underprivileged residents who are often taken advantage of by penny-pinching landlords. The Heat Seek NYC project designed wireless temperature sensors it plans to distribute across the city with the help of tenant advocacy groups. Those sensors let tenants and those helping them navigate the city’s housing bureaucracy by automatically tracking when their apartments get illegally and dangerously frigid, say the project’s leaders.
Housing temperature problems aren’t unique to New York City, but “this project definitely would not have happened anywhere else,” says Heat Seek backend developer and cofounder William Jeffries.
Jeffries says the idea evolved last winter, when he was a student at the Flatiron School brainstorming ideas for class projects using the Twine Wi-Fi-enabled sensor kit. Temperature monitoring was one idea he considered, and classmate and Heat Seek cofounder Tristan Siegel’s mother is a social worker whose clients often have issues with inadequately heated apartments, and the two began to think seriously about the idea.
“Pretty soon we had a team of, like, nine people,” says Jeffries.
The Flatiron School provided the fledgling project with prototyping tools, supplies, and work space. “The curriculum is sort of like fundamentals of programming and general tools and instruction on how to think about problems and learn new tools,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of direction in terms of what projects you should work on, or what kind of ideas you should have.” The school also helped arrange for the team to present its project at New York Tech Meetup, where budding inventors present “hacks of the week” to industry luminaries.
“When we presented at New York Tech Meetup, everyone loved it–it’s partially how we met our designer Andrea [Acevedo] and our other frontend person Ethan [Ozelius],” Siegel says.
Since then, the group has received more than $10,000 in pledges in an ongoing Kickstarter campaign that’s set to bring the sensors to project backers and New Yorkers in need. And, Heat Seek is working with advocacy groups Community Action for Safe Apartments and the Urban Justice Center to help determine where to place the devices and make sure advocates and attorneys are on hand to help track temperature violations.
“These organizations all have high-priority lists of tenants, and they renew these relationships every winter,” says Jarryd Hammel, the project’s business development lead. “We’re really good at hardware development, software development; it’s not a good use of resources for us to be building up lists of the thousands and thousands of tenants who need these resources.”
The sensors come in two flavors: a more powerful hub unit that takes temperature readings and transmits them to Heat Seek’s cloud servers via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, and simpler and less expensive cell units that transmit their readings via a nearby hub. Sending the data to the cloud means tenants no longer have to worry about compiling their own heat logs and that advocates can be automatically notified when violations are detected.
“One of the principal pieces of feedback that we received since we first tested our sensors is that the tenants themselves want the technology in their apartment and working, but they don’t really want to interact with the data,” says Hammel.
Ideally, just having reliable data easily available could help landlords and tenants find fixes without protracted legal battles, says Daniel Kronovet, an industrial designer on the project.
The project is also compiling a real-time interactive map of heat complaints to show city officials and plans to add real-time data from its own sensors. Heat Seek’s also a finalist in the NYC BigApps competition, which provides guidance and funding to projects using city data.
“New York as a city has been making a lot of effort to promote this kind of thing,” says Jeffries. “New York City has over 1,100 regularly updated databases with city data that is all public.”
After deploying its sensors to needy tenants in New York, the group sees the potential to expand into other cities and markets, including some that might bring a profit. Some building management companies and energy efficiency consultancies have expressed interest in using the same or similar sensors to track heat loss, says Hammel.
“One of the issues that all of these consultancy groups have is all that all of the sensors available to them take temperatures at the boiler,” he says.
And in other areas of the country, the sensors could be valuable for tracking when apartments get dangerously hot in the summer, he says.
“It’s the same problem, just manifested in a very different way,” he says, though he adds that New York’s strong tenant protection laws can make it easier to translate data into concrete fixes there than in other cities.
“It’ll definitely be useful for providing information at the very least to landlords, tenants, and municipalities around the country,” he says. “It’s the powerful regulations that are here in New York that allow us to implement this as an aid to the justice system.”