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Pulse Links: Home Automation, Personal Informatics

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.

5 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Rob said on 2 April 2009...

    I’ve been citing Andy’s work too, along with a few others, in my search for a link between the UI you mention and the buildings I make.

    Here’s a few slides that shows how I’m hoping software we’ve made might play that role:

    Which, as you’ll see from the last slide, is a development of Mr Hill’s well tempered personal environment.

  • 2. Gavin Bell said on 2 April 2009...

    The homecamp ( crowd has been talking about similar issues, next event is at the end of the month on Saturday 25th April 2009.
    RRD ( is a key tool in doing a lot of this data capture. Some of the OpenWRT derived interfaces might be a reasonable starting point, the weakness of the WRT54G, though widespread, is the lack of USB ports.
    Instead I’ve got a Linksys NSLUG at home waiting for similar purposes, they are discontinued but can be had for 50 quid. Lastly the kinds of hacking on the AppleTV that has enabled boxee might also be a useful approach.
    It is certainly an interesting area.

  • 3. Zoe said on 2 April 2009...

    I’ve been looking into the SheevaPlug for this type of low power, low cost server, mostly as something to log current cost data but also maybe other streams but currently I’ve not been able to get one for less than £100 which is about double what I was hoping to pay.

    On the display side of things, I’ve had a brief look at some of the HDTV’s with ethernet ports. I know some of the newer models have widget interfaces, just thinking out loud could you get them to display new tickers for your energy usage feeds from whatever ends up being your home server? and is that the most mainstream way to let folks track their usage?

  • 4. gavin mcgovern said on 2 April 2009...

    It still seems remarkably difficult to get the data in the first place…. I’m not too worried about storing it in comparison. Dedicated data gathering devices are expensive or encumbered with requirements and still only provide a slice of the big picture.

    I think Maguire’s “data anxiety” theme works for me here too: do I even have access to the right data?

    Good reading, thanks!

  • 5. Rob said on 3 April 2009...

    Notes on the slides I linked above:

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