Some great exploration around the idea of personal informatics in this fantastic post from Lee Maguire, which hinges nicely on this question:
So what happens when the device that records your medical status is also the device you use to update your social connections?
Far more interesting than the “write” of home automation is the “read” of gathering personal informatics.
HP have been marketing their “personal servers” recently, but exploring the site reveals that they think the primary purpose of a home server is being a smart NAS: storing media. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to have a home server that ran applications, gathered informatics? And to do so in a simple, consumer-friendly manner.
This is the pattern that devices like the Current Cost embody: it sits in your house, and sucks up information. It’d be nice for that to be part of a platform, perhaps one I can get at over my home broadband connection.
Right now, this is all doable, but at the geekier end of the spectrum. Andy Stanford-Clarke put his house on Twitter (the account is now private, but there’s a good screengrab here) – its energy consumption, its water consumption, its doorbell, its telephone. This was lots of work and fiddly, but wouldn’t it be nice if it was easier? Andy’s collected some links about the project here.
If there was to be a personal informatics server – rather than a baby-NAS – then it could be even smaller, even simpler than the HP models. It’d be something more at a router scale. One of the best examples on the market of a product that’d be an ideal personal informatics server is probably the Netgear NSLU2 (discontinued, but available secondhand); whilst it’s designed to turn USB hard disks into network-attached storage, it also works very well as a silent, low-power Linux server, ideal for performing simple, network-connected tasks. Even more interesting is the Viglen MPC-L – a low-power, AMD-Geode based computer with keyboard, mouse, and Xubuntu distribution for £99. Whilst it’s underpowered for most desktop computing tasks, it’s an ideal miniature server. Whilst Viglen haven’t made that use of it explicit, it’s surely in the back of most geek’s minds. Andy Stanford-Clarke has connected some notes on the Viglen here.
The next question: how do you get that kind of functionality/platform out of complex, bespoke Linux boxes and onto routers (or digiboxes, or similarly pervasive white boxes), with a UI anyone could use?
I’m not sure. But you could do worse than starting them early on the idea of personal informatics – exactly what the Power Hog does. It’s a piggy bank that plugs into an electrical outlet. The pig’s nose is another outlet, but one that can only be activated by putting coins into the piggybank. The piggybank can, of course, later be emptied; but what a lovely way to teach children about the cost of energy. And it’s a smart piece of product design: because the nose (and, presumably, tail) are removable components, the Power Hog can be internationalised with a set of adaptors, rather than through multiple, costly, SKUs.