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Energizing Miami to a better future through community-built IoT flood trackers

Zoey Ren article author avatarZoey RenNovember 30, 2018
Energizing Miami to a better future through community-built IoT flood trackers

On a warm and breezy evening in Miami, a group of people came out from a workshop with joy and fulfillment on their faces. They were one step closer to finish building a small fleet of IoT flood trackers that will help tackle the rising sea level issue in Miami.

Rising sea levels affect everyone in Miami — whether it is a storm flooding that forces business to shut down or daily tides hindering students from the school or the retreating coastline that forces people to abandon their homes to seek higher ground, rising water levels are a big issue. By 2045, the sea level is projected to rise about 15 inches and put a fifth of Miami underwater at high tide, according to US Army Corps of Engineers data (SFRCCC 2015).

Building the trackers took place over a series of workshops, letting community members build loT solutions to the water problems facing their community. The project is driven by the city government (City of Miami), local maker communities, and highly motivated citizens involved in Code for Miami. I was impressed by how the project got community members involved and utilized all the resources to make a difference, so I called Mario Cruz, one of the project leaders and instructors, to learn more about the back-story.

Note: The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. The questions are shown below in strong italics, and Mario’s responses are in plaintext.

As far as I know, the loT workshop has been going since October. How did everything start?

Miami has been suffering from the flood issue for a long time, one of the problems is getting useful data and encouraging more people to get involved. So when Michael Sarasti, CIO of City of Miami, and Danielle Ungermann and  Julie Kramer, Co-Captains of Code for Miami, came to me and said: “Hey, we want to do an IoT session around flooding,” I said, “Let’s do it!”

I built a small flood tracker prototype using Particle products because I have been using Particle for over two years now. We later organized an information session on what IoT is and I explained how I built the prototype. This demystified the process to get more people involved in the build-a-thon. Since then, we have had three events, and we are going to have many more.

How many people are participating in the project and what is the process?

We have 25 people on the project, and they self-divided into six teams. We gave them access to tools and materials, so all they had to bring was themselves and a computer. They have been tasked to build the device, write the code, make everything waterproof, and then put the device in different places around Miami to collect data and information. Some teams are developing a project to post daily about the sea levels. If there’s a flood, it will start tweeting out the rise and how long it’s happening. These six teams are building six different models because we want to test different variations and we will replicate the one that works best the next time around.   

What is the Particle product you use for the project? And has it made it easier for you to develop the workshop?

We use Particle Electrons because we want to have the data streamed back via a cellular network to the Particle cloud and not have to rely on Wi-Fi. We also need to build things quickly and easily. The beauty of the Particle chips are they enable cell-connected devices without the hassle. I would say that’s probably a game changer.

When your goal is to write software that fixes the problem, it’s good to have hardware with all the backend infrastructure built into it — things like cellular carrier relationships, SIM management, security, OTA functionality, etc.  Within the first hour, you’re working on the solution, not figuring out how you’re going to get the data back, have it secured, or worry about power management.

What has been the most exciting moment about launching this IoT workshop?

To see the final product in a couple of weeks is going to be pretty amazing. During the session on Nov 12, we were working on the solar panels, and it’s exciting to see everything all coming together. We’re 75% there for the last stage, and hopefully, everything will be done in about two weeks. We are all excited because the workshop really shows that you can make a change if you have tools available. A lot of folks even bought their own Particle chips after the session.

How valuable are workshops like this? What’s in it for the maker community and the city of Miami in general?

We want to show that anybody can do this, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. We’re building devices to capture flood data and analyzing that data to enable the city to be more responsive.  Ultimately it’s about a positive change for the city.

It has also helped build a community here in Miami. We want to have this knowledge spread throughout the community, not only for these near-term benefits but also to encourage the next generation of makers and developers. We will get more kids and regular citizens involved in technologies that will be a change for everybody.

I noticed that the IoT workshop has multiple organizations involved. What are their roles and how did you collaborate with them?

Code for Miami collaborated with the City of Miami on the original idea, and they collectively reached out to me since I am the lead producer at Maker Faire Miami. After they reached out to me, we contacted Moonlighter Maker Space and asked them if we could work out of their labs – they said yes.

What have you planned next?

I think the two biggest issues in South Florida today are flood and transportation, so that’s where I want to focus next. The idea is to quickly (and cheaply) build IoT prototypes and show them to the city. I want to be able to say, “Hey, look how easy it was for us to build working solutions, imagine if you guys helped us do this, it would be faster!” And that’s going to make a difference – we are already seeing results.