Founder of the Oxford Flood Network, Ben Ward talks to us about guerilla sensor networks and disrupting smart cities
Ben has spent over twenty years doing things with the Internet. A self-declared troublemaker, he decided to base his entire company on disrupting the status quo and asking questions. After working on some of the largest telecoms networks in the world, a subsea cable system, and developing network monitoring software he decided that it was time to use the Internet of Things for real-world applications. He is Founder of the Oxford Flood Network and recently started the UK Flood Network.
Q: Tell us about UK Flood Network
A: We’re a new formed startup who provide low-cost monitoring of floods and water levels in places where it was previously uneconomical to monitor. UK Flood Network, is aimed at flood response organisations, local authorities and monitoring rarely accessed locations.
Q: Similar to your work on the Oxford Flood Network, tell us about that.
A: So Oxford Flood Network, is a citizen sensor network that uses low-cost Internet of Things technology to detect flooding. It uses low-cost ultrasonic sensors to detect water surface levels in rivers, streams, under bridges, or even floorboards and then transmits this over the Internet to a database, allowing people to look at very detailed water levels in their area and predict flooding.
I created the network together with Andrew Lindsay last year, and later Nominet joined us. We operate an increasing number of sensors around the city and monitor these whilst developing software to analyse the output and encourage community participation.
Q: Why did you start the Oxford Flood Network?
A: I was stupid enough to buy a house in a floodplain, so I signed up for alerts from the Environment Agency. These err on the side of caution, so I got many alerts warning me of even the smallest flood. They're great, but just aren't accurate enough to really know where flooding is happening right now. Local knowledge was only really available by word of mouth or the Oxford Mail flood blog and goes out of date quite quickly.
At the same time, I was intrigued about the possibilities offered by a new technology called TV Whitespace, which uses unused TV channels for wireless communication. I imagined a 'guerilla sensor network' using this newly available spectrum, with devices hidden around a city without permission or top-down authority. Flooding seemed like the obvious choice so me and Andrew developed a hardware flood sensor and gateway to allow householders or businesses to crowdsource water level readings.
Q: Very lean. How exactly do the sensors tell you there’s a flood?
A: So the ultrasonic sensors suspended above water we measure the distance to the water surface. It's small and low-cost so can be used for rivers, streams, or even under floorboards. The devices use low-power radio modules to send the readings back to a gateway device hosted in people's homes or businesses and then on to the internet.
There's a web map which allows users to monitor and visualise water levels closest to them. You don't need to host a sensor to use the map and you don't need to use the map even if you have a sensor.
Q: You mentioned working with Nominet on the Flood Network, you’re also working with them in a broader context helping them make Oxford into a Smart City. What does that involve?
A: The initial aim was to explore how citizens could use IoT technology to make their own city smarter, deploying sensors from the ground up rather than the traditional top-down deployment. This is where the concept of a 'guerilla sensor network' came from - monitoring things that matter to you as a community. It became obvious that this fitted into the evolving definition of smart cities and starts with user needs, rather than ideas imposed by a technology company.
Nominet have been an incredible backer of the project, supporting it and providing access to their developing analytics backend, which forms part of their R&D for 'Future Internet'. They also run one of the UK's TV Whitespace channel databases which helps some network elements in our project to operate in spare TV channels. Together, we ran one of a handful of TV Whitespace pilots in the UK, demonstrating that the technology could be used in IoT applications. We believe it could be used for an open innovation network, connecting applications several kilometres away without line-of-sight.
Q: Do you think Oxford lends itself to being a ‘Smart City’?
A: There are a number of challenges in Oxford. Social inequality and poverty are high, and it’s officially the least affordable place to live in the country, in terms of property prices vs pay. This means a lot of workers commute from other towns over a geographically constrained transport network, causing huge traffic issues. Oxford has a Low-Emissions Zone in the city centre because the historic buildings cause congestion.
It's recently had European structural funding and a City Deal. The historic nature of the city and the fact it emerged from WWII unscathed means we need to optimise the city using technology and dissemination of information because building new infrastructure is very difficult.
Q: What kind of technologies are going to be implemented over the coming years to make Oxford fully smart?
A: Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities do world-class research on technology including self-driving cars, energy demand management and environmental change. It would be daft not to use this for the city's benefit. Oxford University has a self-driving car programme which is being operated in the city. The Smart City group is implementing a "living lab" where ideas can be brought and implemented quickly to address emerging issues or new technologies. This includes ideas like electric goods vehicles for city centre distribution, vehicle path monitoring (where they went, not just how many), and even putting LIDAR on bin lorries to map out streets. I've personally created a traffic warden detector using the Bluetooth IDs of their ticket machines, which alerts me whenever they're outside my house, although I'm not sure this is what the local authorities had in mind for the Living Lab.
Q: There’s some criticism about Smart Cities jumping too far ahead and costing too much, often being started and never completed, some are arguing for Smart Citizens or Smart Neighbourhoods instead - where do you lie in this debate?
A: There is always a tension between planning and emergent behaviour in cities. If you're a large technology company, the "Smart City" is the most compelling Internet of Things use case and a clear route to market. This means the conversation doesn't start with user needs, but with technology looking for a sale and the first wave has largely been driven this way. Criticisms of this approach by the likes of Adam Greenfield and Dan Hill, explore why cities come about in the first place and the accretion of enjoyable chaos that brings people to them. Technically, the citizens and communities are the actual city, so opening a dialogue or adopting grassroots projects makes sense. Grassroots movements show not only what is possible, but what is desired. There will always be a tension, too much of either tends toward dystopia.
Q: We seem to be at an interesting juncture in the maker world in terms of emphasis on IoT and Smart Cities - it’s an exciting time to be involved in this space, what do you see for the future?
A: It's definitely an exciting time. I think we're just scratching the surface of the ways this will change our day-to-day life. I see one fundamental use of IoT technology is to smooth demand/supply spikes. The National Grid, hydroelectric power, water supply and demand, sewage and drainage, solar and wind supply, even central heating engineers experience demand spikes which means they have to over-provision for sudden events. Monitoring more parts of the supply/demand process allows better decisions to be made and incentives to be offered for smoothing that demand spike.
Behaviour change will take time but as the technology becomes more modular and accessible, I hope people will start to construct their own projects or approach their local authorities to work together. I look forward to data activists like PublicLab and Superflux's IoTA shaking things up.
Q: Finally, what’s your favourite hack at the moment?
My friend, who lives 50 miles away, travels a lot. My cat flap has a motion detector. We've linked his house to the cat flap using the Internet and now his lamp is triggered by our cat. The burglars will never work out his schedule while he's on holiday. And they say the Internet of Things is a security nightmare.