Sensor City

If you think that in the future sensors will tell utility companies when your dumpster is full and garbage needs to be collected, sensors will tell you where there is an empty parking spot downtown, sensors will dim street lights when there is no traffic – think again. Because that future is already here. And I heard about it on the radio this morning.

NPR Morning Edition had a piece about the city of Santander, Spain, where 12,000 sensors are buried under the asphalt, affixed to street lamps and atop city buses. There it was again, that word that was thrown around at SXSW so much this past March: SENSORS. Is creating a so called “smart city” a smart use of sensors? Is this “progress for humanity”?

It seems to be working for the city of Santander, which, according to the NPR report, is saving money on utilities.

The city saves money — about 25 percent on electricity bills and 20 percent on garbage — and utility companies pick up the tab for the sensors’ upkeep, because they save money by using them.

It also seems to be working for its citizens who seem to feel more connected and involved. They cannot just receive information, they can report potholes and broken streetlights directly via the app on their smartphones and those issues get fixed faster, within days, rather than weeks. Citizens also can submit their ideas for city planning. You can learn about the (EU-funded) project at

So I have been wondering what kind of sensors I would find useful in my little city of Missoula, Montana:

  • Parking spaces, sure
  • River flows to see if fishing, beaching and boating are good
  • Snow levels in the winter for skiing and snow shoeing
  • Air quality (major issue during the fire season)
  • Donut and cupcake count at the local bakeries (quantity and available flavors, maybe with a pre-oder option through the app)

What kind of sensors would you like to see in your city? Or do you find this all way too creepy and would rather do without any sensors in the ground?