Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Trash Track Is Back

The MIT Trash Track team was back in Seattle over the weekend to talk about their project. I was there and got action photos of the researchers...uh...talking. It's what researchers do.

The MIT Trash Track project follows the death cycle of the trash that we toss out. We throw our trash away, but it doesn't just "go away", it goes somewhere, and this research project uses modified cell phones as a LoJack to track the journey discarded items take to their final destination. The Trash Track project is one of several initiatives under the umbrella of the Senseable City Lab at MIT which does research in to how to take advantage of our increasingly connected world to improve the quality of life (as opposed to those despicable cads who want to track our every move - the Trash Track guys are on the side of Good, not Evil - though I am somewhat concerned about the interloper in their group photo.)

Last month I wrote about dragging a dryer in the back of my Prius down to the Seattle Library to have it tagged and tracked. Saturday I wanted to find out what happened to my dryer.

The group was again at the Central library branch. There were two parts to the event, an hour long presentation by the group and then food a reception where you could get up-close and personal with the research team.

Most of the folks who had been here in August were back: Assaf Biderman (associate director of the Senseable City Lab), project leader Kristian Klöckl, Jennifer Dunnam, and E. Roon Kang all returned, this time with the notable addition of their boss, Senseable City director Carlo Ratti.

The talk itself took place in the auditorium at the library. I was a little late - took a half hour to cross the 520 bridge because of the Husky game, though I take some solace in that they beat USC. There were about a hundred people in the auditorium, of whom I recognized no one from last month except the MITers themselves. Also at tables up in front were Rita Smith of Waste Management, and Tim Croll of Seattle Public Utilities. WMI and SPU are partnering with the Trash Track research.

The first half of the presentation was an overview of the whole Senseable City lab by Carlo and Assaf. The talked about the EyeStop project, Digital Water (think Bellagio fountains combined with an ink jet printer), the Copenhagen Wheel (a step up from the mopeds of my youth), and their most visual presentation, the cell phone usage analysis of Currentcity.

After that the dynamic duo started talking about the concepts of Trash Track. First there is the observation that the technology for tracking things is becoming increasingly small and increasingly inexpensive, making it ever easier to make tracking devices ubiquitous, what they like to call "digital dust". They are looking ahead to the day when everything is connected, even your trash. A lot of trash is identifiable already; open up your computer (not now!), and you'll find all the little bits and pieces are marked with company identifiers and manufacturing batch codes so that if there is a bad batch the company can go back to try and figure out why it went bad. We track our food so we can identify the source of e. coli outbreaks. Digital dust will make the tracking smarter and more accessible.

Then they spoke about the technology behind the project. The tracking unit is basically a stripped down cellphone that has no voice capabilities. The biggest problem to overcome in the field is battery life. Your cell phone battery lasts only a couple of days without recharging. To address that, they include a motion sensor on the board so that the tracker only transmits when it is moving, and even then it transmits its location only once every five minutes. This allows the tracking device to operate for six months or more.

The tracker communicates via SMS messages over the same cell phone network you and I use. It sends back information of cell tower strength which is used to triangulate its position, the same way companies locate missing persons, fugitives, and cheating spouses. SMS messages? How long will it be before your running shoes have a Twitter feed? Oh, well, at least someday you'll be able to go on the internet to track down that missing sock.

The next generation of the tracker is based on Qualcomm's inGeo system which adds a GPS to the system. This will give them a redundant tracking system, which addresses the biggest problem they have back in the lab: dirty data. If you've used a cell phone you know about dropouts and poor connections. The tracking devices suffer from the same problems, which means they can go missing for minutes or days depending on their location, and because the triangulation is not accurate in the way GPS is, sometimes the tracker will seem to jump around a lot. The GPS will give another, more accurate source which can be used to clean up the system (and possibly improve the triangulation process). The tracker will continue to be viable even if only one of the tracking methods is available.

One of the neat things about using cell phone technology is that data can be transmitted back from anywhere in the world. If an old computer gets shipped off to Africa to be stripped down, the device will beam its information back from Africa to Cambridge, Mass.

Then we heard briefly from Rita (WMI), and Tim (SPU). Rita grew up in central Washington who went to work for a small recycling company that was bought out by WMI in 1988. She thinks that Trash Track provides an opportunity to get people (that would be you and me, but mostly you) to shuck off the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" attitude most of us have about trash. By seeing where the trash actually goes, that it doesn't just disappear into the ether, people have a better understanding of the death-cycle of their Stuff, and can modify their behavior based on that increased knowledge. And, as Tim pointed out, that sort of thing has already happened with recycling. Even without any major recycling events last year, Seattle recycled 50% of its refuse (by weight), and the city has a goal of getting that up to 60%. Tim also brought up the idea of product stewardship, where manufacturers would be responsible for recycling their products when they are no longer useful - just push a button that says you're done with your TV and the manufacturer comes by to pick it up - interesting idea but probably won't be seen until after the advent of flying cars.

The presentation ended with a panel Q & A, before we headed upstairs for the food reception with the team.

I thought the most interesting points of the Q & A were made by Kristian, the Trash Track project lead.

First is to consider how long a product exists vs how long a product is actually used. You get a latte at Starbucks and drink it in five minutes and tossed the cup. The cup was used for only five minutes, but for that five minutes it had already existed for weeks or months (not counting how long it existed in raw-material form), and will continue to exist for years as a recognizable, if somewhat mashed up, cup, all for just five minutes use.

The second thing he brought up is when does something go from having value to being trash? Who gets to decide that this item is suddenly and irrevocably "waste"? What we need to do is change the idea of  "waste" for the idea of "alternate use" - what can be reclaimed and reused? How can we manufacture products so that the parts are valuable even after its primary purpose is complete?

Afterwards I went upstairs where there was a huge television showing the routes taken by some of the trash that had been tracked. I met up with the still infamous Mrs. DeGroot, but no one else from last month's tracking event. And there was food.

And my dryer? Still in the data mill. Hopefully find out soon where it is and has been. They put out five hundred tags in August, and will have another deployment later to get the total up to 3000 for the Seattle area. Next time I'll bring something with a little less heft to be tracked.

Okay, so it wasn't quite as exhilarating as tagging a dryer, but the presentation made me think, which is always fun. The last thing I got to do was watch Assaf and Carlo get interviewed by CNN. I don't see the video online yet, so it may not have aired, but if you get a chance definitely watch it if for no other reason than to see live footage of researchers in action, by which I mean, of course...uh...talking.

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