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Why the earth needs you to start hardware hacking with sensors  

Hmm . . . hardware hacking . . .

The computery nerds of you know what this is. For everyone else, it means building machines and computers from their components. It's kind of like the leggo of the electronic world - and it's not as difficult as it sounds.

This is the reason why I want you to get excited about hardware hacking,

Imagine the earth was a patient in a hospital. The patient would be covered in sensors that measure important things: sensors that measure heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and brain activity. All the data would be displayed on a screen that updates instantly without delay. The doctors would be able to immediately know what was going with the patient by looking at the devices. They would be notified with a sudden noise and flash of light if the sensors noticed something was wrong.

If we can care for a human patient in a hospital to such detail, why can’t we do this for our planet?


We can.


Why does the planet need you to start hardware hacking?

1. We need more data

There is a chronic lack of data available on our environmental footprint. We don’t know how much water we use, what the air pollution levels are on our street, or how much trash we make. Even whole cities and states can struggle to collect this data and make it findable.

We need more data on all environmental and social issues so that we can take advantage of the many powerful behavior-change and gamification techniques required to make change happen.

These techniques such as disclosure, leaderboards, social comparison, feedback loops and progress bars really do work and data is intrinsic to their design.

You know what they say, “If you can’t measure it, it probably doesn’t exist”. You have to be able to measure what you want to change if you are going to change anything at all. You can help gather this data using sensors in your hardware hacking project.


2. We need the data to be collected in more granular detail

Data is often collected by the EPA or state departments, but there are very few programs that collect data on granular parameters such as individual, business or household.

This lack of detail is robbing us from using several important behavioral drivers for change.

Firstly, if we can’t find the data for our own home, college, business etc, then we can’t compete with our own score to make progress. We also can’t understand our own score in context of our neighbors or competitors. We can’t generate heat maps that show which location a city should focus their change-campaign on.

Many of the new opportunities in smart cities are being explored by startups (such as WaterSmart, APIS, Air Quality Egg and Loadman Scales) all of which are gathering more granular data. It’s very difficult to harness behavior change tools if we can’t see the detail. For example, we don’t know where the heat sinks or the pollution pockets are in a city without sensors collecting data on every street.


3. We need it in real time

We need data to be collected continually, in real time. The immediacy of data is important so we can see the effects of our changes on it - it’s called a feedback loop. Like a Fitbit, or even a Facebook chat, it needs to work in real time in order to maintain our motivation.

A study conducted on Opower by Associate Professor Todd Rogers from Harvard University showed that there was a marked spike in energy efficiency by residents after seeing the Opower chart in their electricity bill. But their efforts dropped off within a few days, going back to normal for the rest of the month. This case study shows us that we need a continual feedback loop of the data in order to keep our motivation on fleek.


4. We need the data in a database

A lot of data is trapped in PDF documents and excel spreadsheets. This is partly because much data in the past was collected manually by humans and not machines.

These formats cannot be read by web applications. Data needs to be stored in the form of an SQL or Mongo style of database that is callable from a web server. Imagine that someone wants to build an app that tracks the flow on energy efficient vehicles, or map the pollution levels of lakes across the country, but the only data they can find is in a PDF. This is a huge stumbling block for the app developer.  

The more hardware hackers and scientists automate their data flow into databases, the more app developers will be able to more easily develop projects that can help solve environmental problems.


5. We need it to be cheaper

One of the main constraints holding back the evolution of smart cities and widespread disclosure of data . . . is cost. Sensors cost money and if we need a lot of them, that might be a big bill.

We can go a long way though with DIY. When I looked for a wifi-enabled trash scale, I found a company that would custom make one for $2,500. I made it myself from the parts, with some help from a friend, for under $100.


6. Hardware hacking enables behavior change and gamification

You can apply gamification techniques to your hardware project as a way to boost the motivation of the people you are trying to influence. In my video course “Save the World with Gamification” I teach 15 gamification techniques that center around the use of real world data like we’ve discussed in this article. You’ll be getting this data from the sensors you use. If your project is going to be used by several people or groups, then gamification can be a powerful tool to make real and measurable change come true.

But don’t forget to wrap your hardware project in a strategy that will create real change, like I explain in my Russian dolls article. You need to partner your data with a behavior change strategy in a “two lenses” approach so that you don’t just build a neat little robot, but you actually kick some major earth-saving butt.

Here's some things you could make:

1. Install water gauge sensors on the taps on your home, business or school with a nearby LED light that flashes when a person has used up the designated limit of water.

2. Build an Ambient Orb that changes color based on your electricity usage.

3. Track the number of fridge door opens (each one wastes electricity).

4. Build a trash can that measures how much it weighs and charts your progress to zero waste.

5. Make a heat map using a thermal camera of your city and overlay in on Google Maps. Lobby your city to build green walls in the hot areas to help cool the city down.

6. Ranks the energy use of all the houses in your street, or the apartments in your building. Give a Raspberry Pi screen showing the data to all of the participants.

6. Make small public-facing ambient orbs that you can install on the letter box or door of the houses on your street. This public disclosure of energy usage has a powerful effect on people’s motivation to change.

7. Install miniature spectrometers on a series of stormwater drains in an urban area and chart the flow of pollutants.

Download my Gamified Earth Matrix for more ideas like this.

Do you have any cool ideas? Tell me about them in the Facebook group!

Here are some things you can measure

1. Air pollution levels
2. Water usage
3. Water pollution
4. Heat by temperature
5. ​​​​​​​Heat by thermal image
6. ​​​​​​​Electricity
7. ​​​​​​​Movement
8. ​​​​​​​Weight of trash or materials.
9. ​​​​​​​Moisture
10. ​​​​​​​Carbon dioxide

This is just a starting point. Keep researching for more ideas.


How to get started hardware hacking

1. Think about something you want to change in the world.

2. Think about how you would measure it.

3. Research the available sensors (there are sensors for just about everything). You can buy them from sparkfun.com or amazon.com.

4. Look up tutorials on Google, Youtube and Sparkfun about how to make your idea (usually someone has done it before). Check out hackster.io, lynda.com and instructables.com for more tutorials.

5. Consider how you can use a digital screen to show information.

6. Purchase an Arduino or similar microcontroller.

7. Install the Arduino SDK on your computer.

8. Put it all together with some solder and wires.

9. Consider how you will make a feedback loop from the data.

10. Try and store your data from the sensors in a database like Mysql or MongoDB.

11. Think through the gamification features you can add to your design to help motivate people to make big changes. Learn more about gamification in my video course “How to Save the World with Gamification”.


My hardware hacking project

When I wanted to build a game to encourage zero waste living, I knew that to make it all come together, I’d need to put real data at the center of the design. The only way I could see this happening was if I built a “smart” trash can that weighed itself and sent the information to my app over wifi. At first I didn’t think this was possible, but after asking a few friends and doing a few google searches, I found a tutorial on sparkfun.com and realized that it was actually pretty straightforward to make this device.


This is what I purchased

1. An Arduino
2. ​​​​​​​Four load sensors
3. ​​​​​​​A combinator
4. ​​​​​​​An amplifier
5. ​​​​​​​A wifi shield
6. ​​​​​​​A solar panel for power
7. ​​​​​​​A bamboo cutting board to mount everything on
8. ​​​​​​​Wires
9. ​​​​​​​A soldering iron

Other folk at Manylabs added a tiny camera (the size of a quarter) to the trash can so we could see whether the trash can was full at any moment.  


Big things start from small DIY projects

In the early days of Google, Segui and Larry needed enough storage to download “the whole internet” and run searches on it, so they started sticking hundreds of IBM hard drives together in their office at Stanford.

A company called Compology started adding remote cameras to big commercial garbage bins so that the driver of the garbage truck doesn’t need to waste time or gasoline driving over to pick up an empty bin. They are now a VC funded operation with several full time employees and large customers.

Every brilliant product starts with a crude prototype.


A vision for the future: the cybernetic earth

I have this vision for the earth. I see a future where the earth is as perfectly measured as a patient in a hospital. We will know exactly what we are doing to it an anytime and we’ll have a dashboard for the planet to closely watch its every movement.

I can see a future when the era of humans harming the earth has come to close and we have evolved to a new age where we have become intelligent custodians of our beautiful planet. Technology, human beings and nature work together within the earth's biosphere as one synergistic organism in ecological harmony.


The Short-Run and Long-Run Effects of Behavioral Interventions: Experimental Evidence from Energy Conservation By Hunt Allcott and Todd Rogers*, American Economic Review 2014 


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Join us in the Facebook group to leave your comments and ideas about this article. I'd love to hear from you!


Check out the other articles in the 21 Days of Gamification series.

-> The "Russian doll" strategy for change

-> Disclosure: Why public data is the secret solution we need more of

​​​​​​​-> Five easy low-tech gamification techniques you can use to save the earth

​​​​​​​-> How to find your creative genius zone


Find this kind of thing interesting? Join our community of world-changers and get access to my free resources that show you how to apply data, behavior change and game design techniques to your cause for the epic win.
Author: Katie Patrick
Katie Patrick is an environmental engineer and a designer. She helps sustainability professionals, entrepreneaurs and civic innovators to apply powerful techniques in data science, game design and behavioral psychology so they can make epic wins in environmental and social change. She lives in San Francisco with her little daughter Anastasia.
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