January 2, 2012

Why monitor the road?

I mentioned in Changing gears that:

I'd like to add a few things down by the road, like a weathercam so people can see road conditions before they leave the house. Ideally, I'd like to be able to do something like this daily report on traffic, though unfortunately that seems to have broken. I'd love to do similar things for air quality and radiation tracking, and make these kinds of tools available cheaply to a lot more people than the current primarily government market. (Safecast is a big inspiration here.)

What does that mean?

For years, I've wanted to get a better sense of what's happening on the highway in front of my house. Maybe owning one lane is part of why, maybe the noise from the road that makes outdoor activities difficult is part of it, and maybe some of it is my growing interest in gardening the hillside by the road, where I get a massive dose of what it's like to be on the road.

At first I was mostly interested in the speed of the cars going by. The speed limit is 45 mph, but even at a rough guess, I suspect that 2/3 or more of traffic is doing at least 50. Then I watched the state count traffic, and map it, and realized how little the single number "7383" tells me about traffic on this road.

Over the summer I started measuring sound levels, and routinely got readings around 87-89 dB at 35 feet from the road centerline.

I've also been working on collecting weather data, though my station is further back from the road. As I've pondered ways to make that more useful, pointing a camera at the road made a lot of sense. That's the main piece of weather information many people want, especially given that plows can't be everywhere at once.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster and the general lack of reliable information on radiation spread also led me to think that recording radiation data would be useful. The Safecast project has demonstrated that it's possible to collect and share useful information without being a government agency. (In this case, I'm afraid that they can collect and share that information to some extent because they are not a government agency.)

I've been interested in air quality for a while, but found after a while that there isn't a lot of general air quality measurement here. Because we don't have that much traffic or industry, the usual assumption is that we're fine. I have my doubts, especially near the road, but need to test them before I can say much more.

Finally, and maybe too obscure, the increasing number of local earthquakes and seismic impacts around hydrofracking and injection wells (a 4.0 earthquake in Youngtown, Ohio? What?) has me wondering about seismographic monitoring.

Given all of that, I probably have five years of work to do on this, and a lot of challenges in figuring out ways to do this reasonably cheaply. It's getting easier, as the DIY movement takes off and tools like Arduino make connecting sensors to computers and networks much easier, but I'll talk about that in later posts.

I do get one question fairly frequently when I talk about this:

Why not let the government do this? Why should you spend the money and time?

While I'm glad that our local, state, and federal governments do the monitoring that they do, they have their own set of limitations and their own set of restraints. It's obviously expensive to set up monitors up and down the highways, to put air quality monitors in places where problems seem unlikely, and a pain in the neck to lay down traffic counters and take them up again. All of this work has to be done outside, requires calibration to meet various standards, and generally built to withstand difficult scrutiny of courts and politicians. There's an industry segment that caters to those needs, but given those demands and a small market, their products tend to be very expensive.

Taking a DIY approach loses some of those constraints. Of course, it's still hard to make things work reliably outdoors for long periods of time. I spent part of my morning working on what's probably too simple an enclosure for some key pieces. While I do plan to calibrate my sensors, I also don't expect the results to be used by themselves for decision-making with expensive consequences.

This approach also frees me to just plain share the data, both in real time and as it accumlates. All of it, without concern that some interest will be offended, some project derailed, some fears raised that might be inconvenient for government or commercial projects. Ideally, no one will have to ask me to share the information, because it (and the specifications for creating it to the extent possible) will all always be available for free. Forget FOIL or FOIA requests.

Finally, this approach lets me monitor the place that matters most to me: right here. Governments have to cover a lot of places with limited resources. It's hard to leave data collection equipment in the field for a long time, because that equipment is also needed elsewhere. Route 366 traffic patterns, however, change a lot depending on when you're watching.

Next up, I'll talk more about what to monitor, and possible ways of getting there.

Posted by simon at January 2, 2012 1:15 PM in ,
Note on photos