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Sensors in the City: Finding New Applications for Data Collection

By Will Godfrey, Strategic Analyst

Here’s the scenario: Your city determines to improve or change some aspect of one of its neighborhoods and after months of outreach, planning, and building, Street X has, say, wider sidewalks, speed bumps and some benches and trees. The budget’s been used up, the community is generally pleased with the improvements, and the planning department re-assigns the project team to new tasks. If the project’s goals were to improve walkability and calm traffic, it might be difficult to tell how much of an impact was actually made without an in-depth assessment phase. But even if the goals of the project have clearly been realized to everyone’s satisfaction, there’s still value in taking a closer look – maybe if you studied 20 similar projects you’d learn that one of these improvements actually contributes most to the positive outcome, or that two of these improvements work better in concert than they do individually, or that there’s a set of pre-existing conditions that need to be present for a site to see benefits from one intervention or another.

Nine foot tall listening dishes adorn Market Street at the Living Innovation Zone in partnership with the Exploratorium as part of Innovation Month in San Francisco on Yerba Buena Lane at Market Street between 3rd & 4th Streets

Nine foot tall listening dishes adorn Market Street at the Living Innovation Zone in partnership with the Exploratorium as part of Innovation Month in San Francisco on Yerba Buena Lane at Market Street between 3rd & 4th Streets

The difficulty that planning agencies run into is that a thorough investigation using traditional research methods requires boots on the ground counting pedestrians, taking notes on clipboards, etc. This demands staff that aren’t always available, and the results might be skewed by any number of chance factors in play during the observation periods – If the weather is unusually nice, or if the use profile is very different on weekends than on weekdays (when most of the observations are made), or if the World Cup is on TV and everyone’s inside glued to their couch, then the hours of observations can still really only paint a partial picture of the new space’s performance. To fill in all the gaps and complete the picture would require staffing the site 24/7 so that observations can be made continuously.

Outside of the City Planning sector, the need for more efficient monitoring and data-collection has led to a greater dependence on sensor technologies. Smart meters that communicate directly with energy providers are supplanting human meter readers; the Golden Gate Bridge no longer staffs its tollbooths now that everyone has a FasTrak device. These and other more-efficient systems streamline what used to be resource- and time-intensive processes, and can also establish a constant stream of data for those organizations to learn from and respond to. In the context of planning or evaluating a public-domain project, I don’t think that sensors could ever fully replace the role of an experienced researcher who can notice subtle behaviors and reactions to the city-scape, but what sensors are really good at, and what they could help with are all of the necessarily time-consuming and repetitive (but in the end very valuable!) tasks like counting and taking measurements. Your one researcher standing on a corner can log this type of data for a few hours at that location and maybe come back and do the same thing a few more times over the following weeks. A sensor can monitor the same factors continuously over months, freeing up the staffed researcher to move through the space, ask questions, take notes, photo-document their time on-site, etc. That’s what humans are really good at, so using people and technology together seems like a perfect match for the evaluation process of public projects. The test is whether a sensor (or sensors) can accurately capture the key performance data points that tell the story of how a space is being used when a researcher isn’t present.

Narratives running through the Living Innovation Zone on a given day.

Narratives running through the Living Innovation Zone on a given day.

To explore that question and get involved with a very neat local project, MKThink partnered with the Exploratorium and the SF Planning Department on the former’s first ‘Living Innovation Zone’ (LIZ) at Yerba Buena Lane. If you’ve walked down Market Street lately you’ve probably seen it – it’s a circle of benches backed with slatted windbreaks, and there are interactive exhibits to try out as you sit and eat/talk/relax. People speed-walking down the sidewalk can weave through or around it, but the idea is to slow them down or tempt them to pause and “spend time observing their urban environment —and each other— more closely.” (

MKThink’s role in the partnership was to monitor the installation and consider ways to share that information back to pedestrians as an exhibit in a future LIZ. We conducted some of that old-fashioned in-person observation, but we were most interested in testing out a network of sensors that counts up how many wi-fi devices (as a proxy for foot traffic) pass through the study area and measures how long they tend to stay in the space.

Sample data collection of WIFI devices passing through the site.

Sample data collection of WIFI devices passing through the site.

This was conceived as a test of the technology, and there were some challenges with getting access to power and network (but thanks to nearby building owners we were eventually able to!), so we didn’t establish a baseline of data from before the LIZ was constructed. This limited our findings somewhat, but our monitoring system was in-place for 4 months and we have readings that describe the fluctuations in foot traffic and length of stay – our performance criteria – over that entire time. We can tell that the LIZ experienced its heaviest use on Monday, November 18th, and that visitors on Sundays stay significantly longer in the adjacent plaza than those on Saturdays, and a dozen other anomalies and patterns that lend context to the observations we were making throughout the study. The challenge at this point is that even with our mountain of data, it’s difficult to tell which among all of the factors that make up a complex system like Market Street contribute to the spikes and trends in our data. To understand what happens in and around the LIZ on that level we’d need to take into account a whole range of other factors that influence public space, and probably rely more heavily on human-led research than sensors.

So what is a focused application for sensors in city planning and urban design today? Fitting them into a routine evaluation process for public projects is one possibility. The Exploratorium’s idea to make data visible and interactive to get people engaging with their surroundings is a completely different angle. A counterpoint? The city of Chicago has a new program they call the Array of Things, which just started collecting a whole bunch of city data, and at the moment is simply storing it all for ongoing study. (

What’s next?

Inspiring Entrepreneurism in The Built Environment at RoundhouseOne

RoundhouseOne and MKThink are delighted to welcome Kayla, Marley and Sam, three talented interns who are joining us this summer in participation with Haverford College’s prestigious Whitehead Internship Program.

Haverford College

Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Wikipedia (

The Whitehead Internship Program, sponsored by Haverford alumni and honoring John C. Whitehead ’43, fosters hands-on education and experience that supports students’ interests in entrepreneurism. Haverford alum and MKThink founder Mark Miller inspires and lives the entrepreneurial spirit. Having founded three companies, he brings innovation and entrepreneurism into the traditional practice of architecture. Mark says, “The undergraduates at Haverford College are well known for their ability to successfully participate with and achieve results as researchers at a level commensurate with graduate students.  We are grateful that the Whitehead program provides the opportunity for these talented students to extend their efforts to the professional domain – in our case, to explore practical applications through hands on experience with applied technologies in the built environment that will reduce energy and other natural resource demands while improving health.”

Marley Using a Rangefinder

Using a range finder, Marley verifies classroom measurements for the classroom inventory dataset.

Sam, Kayla and Marley will be living the startup life as part of RoundhouseOne’s data analytics team this summer. The interns are spearheading an Integrated Assessment Study for the Haverford campus. The Integrated Assessment is an evaluation of data from an organization’s architectural, environmental, and cultural dimensions to identify efficiency and performance improvement opportunities. The team will be conducting a utilization and occupancy study with a focus on instructional spaces, a Cultural Cartography evaluation, and environmental data collection.

Splitting time between doing field collection in Haverford and data analytics in our San Francisco office, the interns will gain valuable hands-on professional experience as well insights into how data can improve campus life for students and faculty in their own school.

RH1's Haverford Interns 2014

From left to right: Sam, Marley, and Kayla, the 2014 Haverford College Whitehead Interns.

Meet the Interns:

A spark of interest was ignited in History major Sam Callon during a class called Cultural Landscapes of American Empire. It was during that class that Sam became interested in space and architecture and decided that he would like to work for a company focused on the built environment. Sam has been busy collecting data for the asset inventory database and says, “I have liked working with AutoCAD, going around campus with the rangefinder to get room measurements, and meeting with staff about the project.”

Marley Randazzo, a Growth and Structure of Cities major, is interested in the design of place and ways in which space can be more efficient and effective for users. “So far my favorite part of the project has been speaking with members of the Haverford College community concerning what changes they would make or like to see on Haverford’s campus.  For some, a change as simple as the incorporation of natural light into their workspace would be a huge improvement.” Marley is stimulated by the idea that the built environment can be designed to enhance our daily lives.

Fiction writer and English major Kayla Franceschi has always been interested in the intersection between building design and use and the environment surrounding it. “I grew up in East Harlem and am currently seeing a lot of the buildings near me being repurposed in an effort to attract a different crowd. The neighborhood will certainly undergo changes to match its surroundings, but that has only further cemented the idea that what we build molds a community.” Kayla has found the data collection process interesting and believes it has been a great way to begin interdepartmental conversation about the campus moving forward.

For more information, contact Rachel Posman at

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RoundhouseOne’s Ashley Camps Invited to Speak on Panel at Agrion Disrupt 100

AGRION Disrupt 100 Panel: Using Data Transparency to Optimize Opportunity and ROI

 By Ashley Camps, Lead Marketing Strategist at RoundhouseOne 

 Agrion Disrupt 100

Last week I was selected to participate on a panel titled, “Evaluating Energy Efficiency Investments: Connecting Energy Performance to Valuation in Commercial and High End Residential Buildings- Using Data Transparency to Optimize Opportunity and ROI.” I made my way to the Metropolitan Pavilion at 125 W 18th Street to soak in the expertise provided by my peers and share my own insights from the West Coast.

The Agrion Disrupt 100 Conference was a gathering of over 100 innovators and 600 managers of energy companies from around the world. Following a day of sessions and introductions, Mike Rovito (ERS) gave a captivating presentation on “Net Zero and Positive Energy Buildings: A Cost Effective Framework,” which highlighted the value of implementing operational changes to support the physical and financial investments.

These are some of the questions that I discussed with my fellow panelists:

How does the marketplace view sustainability/efficiency investments?

Energy efficiency and sustainability in buildings today is highly valued. It’s not only trendy and creates the perception of being high value and upscale, it can also result in customer retention and generation. Ultimately, though, the primary reason why an organization will work towards energy efficiency is because it saves money.

If it’s about saving money, it’s about saving energy. How do we measure that?

RoundhouseOne was started and incubated architects, strategists and planners who didn’t want to build just for the sake of building, who knew that the best solution for their client’s needs wasn’t always the addition of a new facility to their portfolio. Often, learning to solve for a client’s asset, energy, or operational inefficiency by considering the relationships between the three legs of the stool that Mike had mentioned is the best approach. For example, an organization might try to save money by closing all of the windows in a room to get the highest efficiency from their cooling units.  As a result, they succeed in using less energy to power the cooling unit, but the lack of ventilation results in lower air quality and staff performance suffers.  Does revenue suffer as a result?  This is why it’s important to use a multidimensional approach to analytics when evaluating energy efficient investments.

RoundhouseOne (RH1) is the data-driven technology company that delivers insight to improve an organization’s performance by relating human factors, environmental conditions and physical structures.  Our technology and technologists collect, qualify, correlate, analyze, and communicate data so that our clients can see the full picture and reduce their TCO, avoid capital expenditures, and optimize revenue.

BK CO2 Analysis

C02 concentration vs. occupancy. The grey portion is the level that is known to cause severe impairment to decision-making.


Investments aren’t always fixed. How can we leverage data to identify commissioning opportunities?

RoundhouseOne uses client data, sensor data, and public indices to correlate key metrics against baselines, benchmarks, and help our clients find their KPIs for their organization’s mission, competitor or industry-driven success goals.

How much energy does your organization require to run at your target performance level? Where are the opportunities to save or generate energy? For example, we can look at plug loads, equipment and thermal comfort systems against occupancy and utilization to evaluate opportunities to save. We can look at solar radiation, wind speeds, weather patterns, air temperature and rainfall to evaluate generation opportunities. This only scratches the surface.

Explain the difference between using data to reduce risk in Statistics vs. Engineering. 

The collection and analysis of data removes emotions and assumptions from decision-making. Our clients use RH1 insights to support planning and capital expenditures: From discovery, assessment and strategy to post occupancy study; from city planning departments to school districts to universities, our clients can use RH1 insights for micro planning to creating building sustainability, air quality and energy efficiency baselines and corporate responsibility standards.

Not only do our clients use RH1 Insights to Optimize Opportunity and ROI and to support business cases, but our proven process and patented technology platform validates, standardizes and hosts cross departmental data and powerful insights to provide Data Transparency.

Explain your Methods and Approach.

It’s important to explain that RH1 does not provide the solutions or strategies to solve for these Energy Efficiency or Environmental Resource problems, but that our technology and insight packages are used to diagnose the key metrics defining these needs. This data then can be used to test scenarios before decision-making and support the business case after implementation.

Agrion Disrupt 100 Main Conference Room Agrion Disrupt 100 Main Conference Room

All in all, it was a unique learning experience. I want to extend a thank you to my fellow panelists for a great discussion:

  • Michael Rovito, ERS
  • Timothy Lezgus, Con Edison
  • Dave Jaros, Noesis Energy
  • Andy Frank, Sealed Homes

I look forward to working with more like-minded individuals and partnerships to create a more sustainable, more energy efficient market for generations to come!


Ashley Camps

For more information, contact Ashley at

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MKThink’s Innovative Internship Program

Spatial Temporal Mapping KitAbove, Zachary Moore’s Spatial and Temporal Mapping Kit.

MKThink’s unique internship program is more than an opportunity for young designers to gain professional experience. About half of an intern’s hours are dedicated to a research project that addresses a topic in a way that advances the understanding of the issue in question, provides guidance to MKThink in regard to approaching the issue, or tests concepts through a physical installation. With prompts including, “How can we design libraries to perform in 21st century learning environments?” and, “What are the essential characteristics, design features, and elements of innovation-inspiring space?” our interns embark on a summer-long journey of discovery and design, culminating in a published report and presentation to the firm. As our 2014 interns embark on their summer work here at the office, we thought we’d take a look back at what our fabulous interns accomplished last year!

Willy Mann, now a full-time Strategist in our office, began his tenure at MKThink as an intern interested in the reinvention of the library. His Playbrary(TM) fosters lifelong learning, empowers children, and provides an active and dynamic learning environment. Read about it in full above!

Rhiannon Fleming interned with our architecture studio last year; her focus was on how the physical environment could foster engagement and creativity in the workplace. Check out her final report in full above!

Last but not least, Zachary Moore, now a full-fledged designer here at MKThink, conceived and created a sensor kit that would allow better analysis of behavior factors in the built environment to determine whether or not designed spaces are used for their intended purposes. Check out the kit and its potential applications above!

Every Corner, Every City

Crowdsourced air quality sensors provide opportunity to fill gaps left by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in data resolution and availability
by Sean Dasey


Fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA.

Fire and smoke erupted from an accident at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA, in August 2012.

In 2014, the American Lung Association ranked Fresno, CA as the most polluted of 277 metropolitan areas in America for 24-hour particle pollution. [1] Salinas, CA was ranked the cleanest. Fresno and Salinas are only separated by 100 miles. This underscores the fact that air quality can vary greatly across nearby regions.

Although the current EPA air quality monitoring network captures differences across regions, it is not equipped to capture differences across localities and neighborhoods. For example, the 9-county San Francisco Bay Area, home to 7.5 million residents, has only 39 stations. In fact, this network failed to provide sufficiently detailed neighborhood scale air quality data during the August 6, 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, CA (pictured above), after which 11,000 nearby residents made emergency room visits for respiratory issues. [2] The closest EPA particulates monitor was located 2 miles away from the refinery, and the results took two weeks to analyze.

Historically, the EPA has focused on capturing air quality data on a regional scale by placing several monitoring stations per county, away from major roads or industrial emission sources in order to measure region-wide averages. The current EPA network of stations, however, is not designed to reveal how pollution sources affect the air quality of nearby neighborhoods with any real specificity.

Regional Weather Stations

Map of Bay Area District Air Monitor Sites; the dots on the map indicate where at least one full year of high quality wind speed, wind direction, and temperature data are archived that are suitable for modeling purposes. Source:

One possible solution to this problem would be to crowdsource cheaper sensors to fill in the gaps between sporadically placed EPA stations.

In 2012, an open-source carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide sensor called the Air Quality Egg was successfully crowd funded on Kickstarter, and was named “Best of Kickstarter: 2012”. Although the Egg is not calibrated and therefore doesn’t give accurate readings on an individual basis the way EPA sensors do, it is several orders of magnitude cheaper than a calibrated sensor. This gives citizen scientists the opportunity to deploy them at a much larger scale than the existing EPA station network.

Egg Systems Diagram

The Air Quality Egg began as a Kickstarter-funded sensor that is far less expensive and easier to use than traditional air quality monitors.

Louisville, KY, a historically industrial city that was once described as “smoky and blackened” by a visiting Charles Dickens, is emerging today as a leader in utilizing Eggs to monitor air quality on a neighborhood scale. On April 24, 2014, the nonprofit Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, led by philanthropist Christy Brown and endorsed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, announced the deployment of 100 Eggs around Louisville. [3] They will be deployed strategically, in neighborhoods downwind of heavily industrial zones.

The Egg is one example of a crowdsourced sensor contributing to an emerging network of sensors providing environmental and health data at the neighborhood scale. In Louisville, the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil has partnered with the Louisville Asthma Data Innovation Project to correlate Egg data with time and location data from Bluetooth enabled asthma inhalers. As opposed to the traditional method of accumulating respiratory health data from county hospitals to get regional-scale statistics, this new method will lead to more precise location based data to pinpoint specific neighborhoods where air quality and respiratory health are concerns.

Athsma Incidence in Louisville, KY

Hotspots of Athsma incidence in Louisville, KY.

Using RoundhouseOne’s proprietary data management system, 4Daptive, we can analyze correlations between data from the Egg we’ve deployed in Louisville and our larger sensor network, measuring thermal comfort, foot traffic, and outdoor weather conditions. 4Daptive provides the ability to manage data through an organized database, analyze correlations between multiple data sources, and produce user-created charts accompanied by customizable statistical outputs.

Limitations of available data have traditionally forced air quality analyses to be done on a regional scale. The emergence of localized, neighborhood-scale data will provide opportunities for new insight on how air quality affects our daily lives.

Sean Dasey is a Data Analyst at RoundhouseOne, MKThink’s in-house data analytics team. His work focuses on studying the effect of building design on thermal comfort, indoor air quality, and energy use.


[1] American Lung Association. “State of the Air 2014.” April 30, 2014.
[2] Bruggers, James. “Looking for Air Pollution Hot Spots with Micro-Monitors.” The Courier-Journal dopen-source April 27, 2014.
[3] Bulwa, Demian & Kane, Will. “Refinery Smoke Blew Past Air Monitors.” San Francisco Chronicle August 29, 2012.


Air Quality Egg location visualization and information:
Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil, with interesting data on air quality in Kentucky:
State of the Air, by the American Lung Association: