On the Right Track
The altruistic new face of tracking systems
Tech / 4 May 2011

As we’ve reported, tracking systems have become integrated into the lives of many consumers. Typically, the goal of them has been personal betterment, but a slew of new initiatives demonstrate that tracking technology has earned public service appeal, affecting areas as diverse as public health, urban planning and natural resource conservation.

NextDrop: The lack of reliable water supply is one of the most enduring problems for developing nations. For many communities, water intended for delivery at a specific time often does not arrive on schedule, causing confusion and hardship. Enter NextDrop, founded by a group of Stanford and Berkeley graduate students with financial support from the Gates Foundation. It’s a tracking system that seeks to better manage the distribution of water by alerting residents as to when it will be available. Valvemen simply call an interactive voice response system upon opening their neighborhood valves. NextDrop then sends SMS alerts to the inhabitants of the area 30–60 minutes before the water arrives.

SFpark: Public service initiative SFpark seeks to reduce fuel consumption in San Francisco while also saving drivers from aimless cruising in pursuit of parking spots. Sensors installed in parking spaces and city-owned garages track parking availability in real time. The data is then uploaded wirelessly to a public feed. Using the SFpark website or iPhone app, drivers can track not only open spaces but also how much they'll cost, since the system also varies meter prices based on demand. In some cases, rates drop to as little as 25 cents per hour in lots where demand is low and will inflate to as much as $4.00 per hour on the most congested city blocks.

The Tidy Street Project: Recently, Brighton, UK residents were given a tool to record their daily electricity use for an initiative called The Tidy Street Project. A local artist, Snub, was commissioned to paint a giant infographic that tracked the street’s average energy use on the pavement for all to see. Each day, electricity use for the preceding 24 hours was marked down, while comparison lines showed how consumption compared to that of other UK regions and even other countries. The public guilt trip proved effective: Within the first three weeks of the project, participants’ electricity use dropped by 15 percent, with some cutting back by as much as 30 percent.

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