May 22, 2017

Guess what NYC wants to spend $500k on?

and other tales of over-priced new hardware bound for the junkyard of history

We’ve spent over half a century snapping satellite pics of our planet from over 22,000 miles overhead and bouncing radio pulses off anything that will stay still. It’s all in the name of a tiny, fleeting glimpse into the future — the weather forecast.

As my high school Earth Science teacher used to say on a near-daily basis, “we are insignificant specks in the vastness of the universe.” In this somber light, humanity’s efforts to bring knowledge of the heavenly elements down to earth make sense.

How can humans see the future — on their street?

Endless new hardware like storm-chasing radars and telemetrics are mounted on trucks while personal weather stations and sensors blossom in backyards. Not to be left in the dark ages, cities around the world are trying to get “smart” about the weather, but the price tag of building new systems is jaw-dropping.

Alas, each attempt is a variation on the clunky theme of the last 50 years: hardware upon hardware that piles up in last century’s experimental graveyard.

Here are some examples:

Photo from

In Chicago, a $3.1 million “Array of Things,” is being installed — a network of 500 environmental sensors. Among other metrics, the sensors will provide “real-time, location-based data about the city’s environment” and weather. The project is slated for completion in 2018.

New York City’s Office of Emergency Management last week put out a request for proposals to put a reported $500,000 worth of storm and temperature sensors on the city’s roads. According to the New York Daily News, “The sensors will be able to detect, and eventually predict, when the nasty rain will turn into ice after it hits cold streets,” in other words, weather forecasting.

A screenshot of NYC’s solicitation for road surface temperature sensors

“Traditional meteorological monitoring stations in cities are both difficult and costly to deploy and maintain, ultimately resulting in sparse data coverage,” writes the International Journal of Climatology.

The Federal Highway Administration
 thinks cars should be turned into sensors. I couldn’t find a price tag on that project. They have the right idea, though: “one day to know traffic conditions along every major street in urban areas as well as along every interstate highway across the nation.”

Berlin, Germany 
installed nine weather stations to measure “air temperature, humidity, precipitation, and surface and soil temperature” and called the project the Berlin City Measurement Network. The Network gets data every minute.

Oklahoma City put up 36 Vaisala WXT510 (retail: $2,252 a piece) weather sensors on traffic lights as part of a project called the Micronet from 2008–2013. It was “designed to provide critical weather information for the daily operations of the City of Oklahoma City.”

All the cities above, and many others are spending a fortune to try to get hyper-local weather information that updates every minute. Alas, each attempt is a variation on the clunky theme of the last 50 years: hardware upon hardware that piles up in last century’s experimental graveyard. Many sensors can’t even measure precipitation intensity nor tell you if it’s rain, snow, sleet, or hail.

Redefining “smart”

New hardware networks may be “smart,” but recently, a genius play has emerged. It turns out that some unexpected hardware networks have been passively sensing the environment this whole time. Today, our company is using advanced software to repurpose wireless networks and reveal their secrets about the environment.

We all want to peer into the hyper-local future, especially, in the near-term. And when we catch that glimpse, it might make us feel that much less insignificant against the vast backdrop of both our universe and the towering piles of scrap metal we once called our best new technology.

by: Sophia Tupolev-Luz Chief of Staff | ClimaCell

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