Technology can be a great enabler. Technology for technology’s sake, not so much.

SAP’s Sven Denecken posted this video on Google+ yesterday. I took a look at it because it seemed like an interesting hack – using SAP HANA, the Microsoft Kinect and Augmented Reality to make a product called CEO Vision.

Check out the video for yourself. It’s a bit of a let-down to be honest. Can you seriously see any CEO donning a pair of glasses and waving his hands in the air to get extra information while thumbing through a printed report? 3-D Graphs floating in mid-air? It is a little far-fetched, let’s be honest.

If you want to demo the possibilities of something like this, it is better to go for a more realistic scenario. Instead of the goggles, go for something a CEO would be more likely to use like a smartphone with a camera, or even better, an iPad. Then the CEO can properly interact with the data, drill down, and copy paste into an email, for example.

If you do want to go with the goggles option, then look for a more likely scenario where they’d be used (and that’s not in a CEO’s office). Look at, for example, pulling live data from machinery on the factory floor for display on goggles for production managers, or in combination with schematics, for maintenance.

Also, think of engineers looking at large complex structures such as buildings, airplanes or wind turbines – the ability to see schematics and live data coming from these systems, and drill in could save enormous amounts of time and money in downtime prevented, as just one example.

Technology can be a great enabler. Technology for technology’s sake, not so much.


New version of Eye on Earth site – more data, less visible!

Eye on Earth
Photo credit Tom Raftery

We last wrote about the Eye on Earth site in July 2008. If you can’t remember that far back, a quick recap – Microsoft and the European Environmental Agency (EEA) signed a non-exclusive five year deal with a goal to make environmental information more accessible to citizens in Europe.

EyeOnEarth, the first product of that agreement was launched on July 30th 2008 as a site listing water bathing quality for beaches and waterways throughout Europe. What was unique about the site was that it contained historical data going back as far as 1991 as well as the ability for anyone browsing the site to give their own feedback on beaches/waterways. A superb way to capture and present grassroots water quality data.

In the last couple of weeks, there have been major changes to the EyeOnEarth website. The site has been moved to Microsoft’s new cloud computing services platform Windows Azure, and data from 6,000 air quality monitoring stations across Europe is now also included in the site. The air quality data includes information on ozone, particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) but, curiously, doesn’t include sulphur dioxide (SO2) or carbon dioxide (CO2).

The site has now been combined with Bing Maps and Silverlight controls which work quite well once you realise that you have to type in the name of the location you are interested in into the search bar at the top to see any data. Intuitively I initially clicked on air and water stations on the map but this failed to do yield any data. This appears to be a function of your zoom level because once you zoom in far enough, a click on an air or water station will yield the information.

The fact that the site is written in Silverlight is disappointing as the number of computers with Silverlight installed is somewhere between 32% and 47%. There is a non-Silverlight version of the site available but I failed to get this to work either on my Vista PC or on my iPhone.

The lack of a working platform for mobile is a big disappointment, frankly. Back in 2008 Microsoft’s Director EU & NATO, reassured me that:

We haven’t tested or adapted the site for mobile access now due to time constraints but mobile access is a core component of our vision for the Observatory portal as we like to offer an alerting/subscription service

I took this to mean that there would be a mobile version of the site developed.

However, what Microsoft and the EEA have now delivered is an SMS service whereby you can text a command to a UK number (+44 7786 201 106) – this allows you to receive instant updates on air and water quality for any location in the EEA member countries, however, as far as I can tell there is no way to add data to the site from your mobile, something I’d be very keen to do if I had the option.

The addition of the air quality data to Eye on Earth is a very welcome development, however making the site less accessible, and not having a mobile version of the site means that this update of the site would appear to be a case of one step forward and two steps back.

UPDATE: Just thinking now that if there were an api to this data and if it were geotagged, it would make a really interesting Augmented Reality Layar for a mobiles.


Mobile phones – distributed air quality sensor network?

Since giving my talk on sustainability in the mobile phone sector at Mobile 2.0 in Barcelona a few weeks back and writing my post about how Augmented Reality on mobiles could be transformative for Green tech I have been thinking a lot about how mobiles could make a significant positive contribution to the planet.

The context behind this is that while there are 1 billion PCs in the world and 1.4 billion internet users, there are 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions and climbing. One possibility I posited at Mobile 2.0 was that mobiles could become clients for grid computing projects like IBM’s World Community Grid. This would add significantly to the compute power of the grid (but for now battery life considerations probably means this is still a few years out).

The other thought rattling around in my head was probably sparked off by my discussions with IBM execs around their Smarter Planet initiative. It occurs to me that if mobile phones had built-in air quality monitors, you could very quickly build up a real-time map of pollution hotspots. Current municipal pollution monitors are static and far too few in number to give a meaningful picture of air quality but if mobile phones had this capability, the combining of the air quality information with the GPS data from the phone would allow for pinpointing of pollution trouble spots very quickly.

Obviously for this to be effective, the data would need to be anonymized and uploaded to a central server. Also, the pollution information would need to be made freely available for everyone’s consumption. There may even be a business model there for someone to pay mobile phone users to sample air and upload the information.

A quick bit of research around this thought and I found the video above showing that not alone is it feasible but it wasn’t a hugely original idea on my part 😉

With the recent news of urban pollution being responsible for lower IQ in children and being implicated in premature births of infants and preeclampsia, there is a definite health imperative for something like this. Especially in China, where air pollution is causing massive health problems. Imagine if the Chinese authorities mandated this the way they mandated that all mobile phone chargers use usb back in 2006! Very quickly economies of scale would drive costs down and competition amongst manufacturers would mean smaller chipsets to do this.

Original Rockwell GPS receiver - image from

Original Rockwell GPS receiver - image from

For anyone who thinks that air quality monitors would be too bulky for mobile phones, just have a look at what the original GPS receivers looked like (large backpacks) and now they are embedded in most smart phones!

One final thought harking back to my post on Augmented Reality, with air quality data from mobile phones uploaded to the cloud (unintentional pun, sorry!) it would be very straightforward to create an Augmented Reality view of air quality allowing mobile phone owners to ‘see’ pollution in their immediate environment – imagine how quickly that would drive home to people the seriousness of their air quality situation.


I wish I were a software developer!

I was peripherally aware of Augmented Reality before attending the Mobile 2.0 conference in Barcelona a few weeks back but hadn’t really thought through its consequences/possibilities until I saw the video above by Dutch startup company Layar.

I realised that Layar’s offering was geographically limited but its potential (esp in the Green space) was enormous – how to tap it?

I mentioned Layar during a briefing with Krishna Kumar of SpaceTimeInsight a couple of weeks back in San Francisco and he immediately ‘got it’ and was very excited with the possibilities.

Then yesterday Layar co-founder Maarten Lens-Fitzgerald pinged me via Twitter to let me know that Layar has opened up its Augmented Reality platform and is giving out (a, for now, limited number of) API keys.

This means that any database with location data and a Layar api key now has the ability to create an Augmented Reality Layar! just stop and think about that for a sec.

This opens up enormous possibilities for Augmented Reality applications in the Green space. Imagine walking down the street and seeing emissions data for the companies/businesses simply by pointing your phone at them. Or pointing at machinery and seeing schematics, lifecycle emissions data, or…

A mashup of AMEE, the neutral aggregation platform which measures “the carbon footprint of everything on Earth”, with Layar would be an absolutely awesome. Or a wiki with a Green Layar UI. Or….

The possibilities are limitless!

I really wish I were a software developer right now – the applications of this technology are seriously awe inspiring!

[Disclosure] – AMEE are a GreenMonk client co.