IoT could help your city sue polluters for bad air

  • Posted by admin on February 26, 2018

The Bosch air quality sensor is lightweight and takes 10 different measurements. Photo by S. Higginbotham.

One of the reasons I’m such a proponent of getting more data from more things and analyzing it is because if we do it right, we can understand what things cost at a granular level. The business world clearly believes this. We see, for example, congestion pricing for parking spots in cities and insurance rates based on mileage or driving habits. But what gets less attention is how connected sensors and cheap analytics can help us understand the cost of everything — even things we don’t currently value.

Granular pollution data could lead cities to charge polluters for their emissions, for example, or granular performance data for machines could show the liability of a company that forgoes maintenance in favor of savings. Essentially, the internet of things allows customers, regulators, and users to calculate things that were once incalculable and deemed “the cost of doing business.”

With granular data, people can make the calculations to determine if those costs outweigh the benefits. It turns externalities into liabilities that can be measured on a balance sheet or charged to a perpetrator.

Depending on your point of view, this is either a great thing — or a terrible thing.

For example, in a conversation at Bosch Connected World held in Berlin this week, Somil Gupta, who does business development for digital solutions at Bosch Nordic, demonstrated a cheaper pollution monitor that he said Bosch is pitching to cities as a way to determine liability for polluters. In Gupta’s example, a city could deploy these sensors in a particular area and track what affects pollution levels there. When the level of pollutants is found to be high due to automotive emissions, for example, the city could charge more for driving in the region.

Gupta said no city is actually doing this today, but it’s remarkably close to a scenario I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I’ve been looking at city-level pollution data as a way for citizens to get involved in otherwise boring zoning and construction discussions. For example, citizens could take data showing a statistically likely increase in asthma rates near a newly proposed freeway to city hall, which in turn could use that data to get developers to pay more into a medical district or to fund abatement projects.

In other words, it makes a previously invisible social cost not only visible, but calculable.

It will likely raise the cost of items like cars or even electricity. But there are scores of things we don’t pay for today that have real costs; pollution isn’t the only externality that the internet of things might illuminate. For decades, companies have built products that connect to the internet without decent security features.

Many of these companies making routers, smart TVs, or connected cameras didn’t focus on security because they didn’t have to. Hackers didn’t target devices at a wide scale and consumers weren’t about to pay an extra $ 10 for a router that didn’t come with a hard-coded password. Consumers had no idea what was at stake, and ease of use trumped security.

Until the internet of things. Now, attackers have a huge cluster of devices with an array of tempting functionality that could lead them to networks with valuable data or to devices that could wreck new havoc. Rather than putting a financial value on an externality, the rise of the internet of things has merely shed light on an externality that most never even knew existed.

But once the Mirai botnet took down websites in one of the largest attacks on record, everyone woke up to the challenges of securing connected devices and the potential for harm. Sure, one can argue that if we didn’t connect everything we wouldn’t have this problem in the first place, but that’s like arguing against the creation of plastic, which has damaged the environment while also changing the world for the better.

Technological advancement has always come with costs. At least we now have the tools to make those costs visible and calculate their impact. Perhaps I’m naive, but I do believe that once we can see the problems, we will do something about them. Either because it’s the right thing to do, or (more likely) because it will have an impact on a firm’s bottom line.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

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