Smart phones: The potential information engines of the smart world

A recent article titled, “Increasing fuel efficiency with a smartphone,” highlights the flexibility and value of portable information appliances. Researchers at MIT have created a network of dashboard-mounted phones that collects data on traffic lights and tell drivers how to avoid inefficient stopping and starting. The technology helps reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent, which is very impressive given the number of cars in the world and the energy they consume.

The smartphone, the computer you always have with you, has the potential to become the information engine of the smart world. It is the foundation for a portable sensing device because of the built-in GPS, camera, and multiple sensors (e.g., accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity, and ambient light). The tens of millions of smartphones can become  a massive sensor network that reports the current state of the environment. The beauty of this network is that it costs almost nothing to implement other than the creation of the apps to sense what is happening and the processing by associated information systems of the smartphone generated data streams.  Many of the costs are already being borne by the smart phone owner, who has purchased the phone and paid for a data plan. As in the referenced example, the processing may well be done by the smart phone, which further reduces the costs of creating smart phone based sensor systems.

To see other scholars views on the use of smart phones for advancing environmental sustainability, read Pitt, L. F., Parent, M., Junglas, I., Chan, A., & Spyropoulou, S. (2010). Integrating the smartphone into a sound environmental information systems strategy: Principles, practices and a research agenda. The Journal of Strategic Information Systems. doi:10.1016/j.jsis.2010.09.005

To make such sensor systems a reality, two things need to happen. First, we need to create the apps, such as the MIT example, to sense relevant events in the environment. Second, we need to create incentives for a sufficient number of smart phone owners to use these apps to provide the density of information necessary to enable a general community benefit, such as reduced traffic congestion. In the longer run, smart phone manufacturers need to be encouraged to extend the sensing capability of their devices to include  detecting air quality, temperature, and other aspects of the environment that critical to the pursuit of sustainability.

We can build a smart world, one smart phone at a time.


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