National Science Foundation funds citizen science project to crowdsource an infrared street view

We are pleased to announce that the National Science Foundation has awarded us a two-year, $500,000 exploratory grant to develop, test, and evaluate a citizen science program that engages youth to investigate energy issues through scientific inquiry with innovative technology. The project will crowd-create the Infrared Street View, a citizen science program that aims to produce a thermal version of Google’s Street View using an affordable infrared (IR) camera attached to a smartphone. In collaboration with high schools and out-of-school programs in Massachusetts, we will conduct pilot-tests with approximately 200 students in this exploratory phase. The project will develop SmartIR, a smartphone app that will guide users to collect IR images on both Android and iOS platforms for synthesizing a seamless street view. Figure 1 shows a prototype of the Infrared Street View and Figure 2 shows a little math behind the scenes.
Fig. 1: A hemispherical infrared street view (prototype)

In essence, an IR camera serves as a high-throughput data acquisition instrument that collects thousands of temperature data points each time a picture is taken. With this incredible tool, youth can collect massive geotagged thermal data that have considerable scientific and educational value for visualizing energy usage and improving energy efficiency at all levels. The Infrared Street View program will provide a Web-based platform for youth and anyone interested in energy efficiency to view and analyze the aggregated data to identify possible energy losses. By sharing their scientific findings with stakeholders, youth will make changes to the way energy is being used. 

We are completely aware of possible legal implications and complications of the proposed citizen science program. In the case of Kyllo v. United States in 2001,  the Supreme Court has ruled that the use of a thermal camera from a public vantage point to monitor the radiation of heat from a person’s home was a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and thus required a warrant. The ruling seems to be limited to the use of thermal cameras by law enforcement, however. Back then, IR cameras were available to only a handful of professionals, but they are only $200 nowadays and just a few clicks away on Amazon. The widespread use of smartphone-based IR cameras is making thermal images commonplace on the Internet and it is probably an interesting question for law scholars to study how civilian use of IR cameras should be regulated.

Fig. 2: Math behind the scenes.

Regardless, we will take the privacy issue very seriously and will take every precaution that we can think of to avoid potential side effects resulted from this well-intentioned program. Fortunately, we have a lot of public supports to conduct this research on large public buildings and possible commercial buildings, where the concerns of privacy are far less than private residential buildings and the needs to reduce the energy waste of those buildings and save taxpayer dollars are far more pressing. Hence, we will start with school, public, and commercial buildings in selected areas where performing thermal scan of the buildings and publishing their thermal images for educational and research purposes are permitted by school leaders, town officials, and property owners.  

From a broader perspective, the Infrared Street View program could serve as a pilot test that may shed light on increasingly important issues related to citizen privacy in the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), which features the ubiquity of sensor data collection that could be viewed by many as invasive into their physical space (not just cyberspace). While no one can deny the tremendous potential of the technology in transforming the ways people learn, work, and live, careful research must be carried out to address legitimate concerns. This program could be one of those projects that provide a unique approach to meet those challenges from a citizen science point of view, which integrates many interesting scientific, technical, educational, and legal aspects. The lessons we can learn from conducting this work could be very useful to the citizen science community in the IoT era.