Participatory Sensing – An Interview with Deborah Estrin

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While the iPhone doesn’t ship nearly as much as its humbler brethren – the iPhone opened up many minds about the potential of phones to do a whole lot more than talk. In that regard it is a peek into the future.

The iPhone is a rich portable computer with onboard sensors. Specifically, it is a location-aware (GPS), motion-aware (accelerometer), directionally-aware (digital compass) visually aware (camera being used to scan QA codes or serve as visual input), sonically aware (microphone and speakers), always-connected (wireless or 3Gs) handheld computer. Every operative word in that sentence is deeply meaningful and rich with possibilities we have just begun to explore. The iPhone does a whole lot more than display information. It is an environmental sensor.
Its value lies just as much in sensing information as it does in displaying information.

While the iPhone has the richest set of onboard sensors even basic feature phones are allowing for some remarkable innovation (see my interview with April Allderdice of MicroEnergy Credits) This is an enormous leap forward when our devices are not only connected but context-aware. It is a core theme behind Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle’s “Web Squared” definition that see concepts of Web 2.0 moving into the world.

This concept of “humans as sensors” was the subject of the Web 2.0 Summit panel led by Radar’s Brady Forrest last week. I caught up with panelist Deborah Estrin before to discuss her UCLA group’s work on participatory sensing. Deborah is building multiple applications to express the value of the phone as a sensing device; from large group projects to collect data on an area (such as to personal applications that blend GPS and accelerometer to constantly map your location in time and space then overlay valuable information upon it such as air quality and so on. In the case of air quality – this data might help inform your decisions about where you go jogging or take your baby for that morning stroll.

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