GeoCENS update: A million little pieces of data

By Lizzie MacNeill, Communications Officer, Calgary

In the next year, environmental monitoring could experience a paradigm shift in its sensor technology, thanks to an inexpensive, multi-purpose, network-enabled sensor developed in our own backyard.

"Right now, industry is using a few very expensive sensors to conduct environmental monitoring," says Steve Liang, director and developer of the GeoCENS platform (Geospatial Cyberinfrastructure for Environmental Sensing) and Assistant Professor, AITF-Microsoft Industry Chair on Open Sensor Web at the University of Calgary.

GeoCENS is an interactive web tool that allows scientists (and citizen scientists) to monitor landscape and climate changes and map out how those changes are impacting local ecosystems, in real time. It's also a plug and play tool for anyone looking to share environmental data with a larger community, taking research out of the closed doors of academia.

Liang's team has developed a prototype of a small sensor that costs under $100 and can work with the more expensive devices currently used in Alberta's environmental monitoring projects, such as the Oil Sands. The mini sensors will be available in early 2013.

"The sensors will allow anyone, anywhere, the chance to conduct their own environmental monitoring," says Liang. "This should hopefully encourage more citizen science, and more public engagement in how our natural resources are being managed."

The sensors are designed to pick up different kinds of environmental information, including air quality, water level, soil moisture, and gas emissions.

When used in combination with more expensive and highly accurate sensors, these mini sensors can triangulate the information in order to, for example, find the source of a polluting emission. This capability could be especially useful in the oil and gas industry in pinpointing gas leaks.

The sensors are also "sensor web" ready, which means they were developed to meet international open sensor web standards. If the owner of the sensor wants to share their findings, they can automatically join the world-wide-sensor web. Think of it like the Wikipedia of environmental monitoring. The data is provided by a vast network of volunteers and once uploaded it's open to anyone, enabling global information sharing. 

More updates on environmental monitoring technology and sensor upgrades are to come from GeoCENS in early 2013.