No one asks the right questions anymore.

Then again…what is the right question?

There is a big push on at the moment to make Cambridge a better place to live, work, and play. I presume this isn’t particular to Cambridge, but it is where I find myself, so I’ll roll with that. There might be extrapolations to be made, generalisations to be inferred, but mostly this is about my surroundings.

Everyone (sort of…) agrees there are too many cars on the roads. Solutions differ (more bus lanes! more buses! more public transport! Then we have the Cambridge Cycle Nazis Campaign whose only solution is ‘ban cars!’) but all are (sort of…) agreed Something Must Be Done™.

Parking a car in town is extortionate (at one point it was cheaper to take the hit of a parking fine than all day in the Grand Arcade), and the Park and Ride a chore. The good middleclass cyclist will have you do everything online, so you can cycle in, get everything delivered. Which isn’t always practical.

But that isn’t the point I want to make. Let’s imagine all the problems the single-issue pressure groups are solved. Doesn’t matter how. Super-sized underground magic car park with spaces for the whole of Cambridgeshire, no-car-everyone-cycles hippy utopia, matter transfer physics-defying teleport beam, whatever. Just roll with it being solved somehow. Or partially solved. Whatever. Everyone is happy, right?

No, they have solved the wrong problem. Made new ones, which they should have seen. Imagine all the routes are clear, no one has any hassle getting into, or out of, town. Happy locals, happy cyclists, happy commuters, happy drivers, happy tourists. Everyone is happy.

The problem has shifted. Now we have pedestrian congestion. All these people, with easy, hassle free access to Cambridge, are now wandering around a compact city centre.

I’ve heard no mention of what we do when we have all these non-car-users in the centre.

This is the more pressing problem, the question no one has asked. What do we do with people congestion? Litter? Signage? How can we manage the people in the city centre, to make sure they have an enjoyable, stress-free dander around? OK, so King’s Parade is never going to be clear, nor the new stand-in-the-road junction by the Corpus clock, but we can make the rest better.

Why do we not have pedestrian signs much like the car park ones? ‘Market Square is 90% filled’, or ‘Heavy Tourist activity by Mill pond’? Imagine an app on your phone that meant you could plan your shopping/touristing/route around town to avoid such areas?

Well, imagine no more, gentle reader! I trialled a solution to this very issue, and in principle, it works splendidly. The journey to this covers several projects I worked on, and I came to this natural end point. Stay with me a bit longer, and I’ll recount the history, thinking and tech used to get to that point.

Here comes the history, insert wavy-vision lines if you want.

I can’t remember how I first came across the Cambridge Quantified Self group, but it ticked a lot of the boxes I like, so I approached them and asked if it would be acceptable for me present some ideas/gadgets I’d built to them. This was indeed deemed acceptable, and I’ve spoken to them many times since, but that is not for this tale.

At the height of summer (it is worse then, but only marginally) Cambridge is filled with tourists, cyclists and locals scowling at both. (Not-summer is filled with tourists, cyclists, students and locals, all scowling at each other. If you can see the cyclists as they wear all black and have no lights.)

It is widely known I am not a fan of crowds, and it is only by dint of many, many years of martial arts training that I don’t repeatedly punch people out of my way in their seemingly directionless meanderings at varying speeds around town. To which end I tend to avoid Cambridge at the weekend. (Specifically after 1pm. Before that is fine, Cambridge sleeps in, and you can get in and out relatively unscathed. Presuming I can make that window, all is generally fine.)

As inspiration struck me, I built a (nnnnn) wearable, that monitored my heart rate, perspiration rate, skin temperature and so on. If it triggered certain levels (for a sustained period of time) it would work out where I was, talk to an app I wrote and give me directions to the closest pre-programmed places of calm I could escape to. And it worked swimmingly. All cobbled together by me, at home, with basic electronics and even more basic code.

Fast-forward a year, and there was a 24-hour civic hackathon on, to which I went. The City Council (amongst other bodies) were opening their data feeds, and asking local people to come up with innovative ways to use them, to help make Cambridge a better place. Nothing therein inspired me, people were doing the same old tired things (where is my bus? how long will it take me to get to X? how many cycle nazis does it take to change a lightbulb?) and asking the same old tired questions.

I wanted access to the CCTV feeds. Live. (To count…circles, equating them to faces, and getting a count of people in an area. Can you see where this story is going yet?) But, alas, that can’t be done. (Yes, there would be privacy issues, but I only wanted to count ‘circles’, nothing else. And the data feed would only spit out a number. But, as I said, alas, not to be.)

Undeterred, I thought if I can’t get that from them, can I…get it myself? Back to the soldering iron, batman! The first rule of homebrew club, is that you use what you have to hand. Or at least in my club it is, as I don’t have the cash to spend on expensive trinkets. But how to solve it?

Let’s ask the right question.

What can possibly be used to estimate the amount of people in an area? Well, this is the 21st century, and everyone carries a mobile phone. Is there…anything I can do there? Of course there is! And I’m not talking about surveillance state sniffing here, I want the equivalent of counting circles. Mobile telephony is at a certain frequency, and talks to the base station. Is there any way I could…ascertain field strength? And correlate that to the number of people in an area?

It is pretty much given these days that there is a one-to-one correlation to people and phones. Those who carry multiple will offset those who carry none (what is red and invisible?). Doesn’t matter if it isn’t exact, that isn’t the point. I was more interested in if I could get some sort of reading, calibrate it, and get at least a ballpark figure of how many people were in the ballpark.

Having recently turned myself into a radio ham (without a radio, alas, damn those things are expensive, which is why I guess Radio Club is all old white dudes) I knew something like this might be possible. So I set myself the task of during the 24-hour hackathon of constructing something like this.

And I did.

While everyone else was worrying over map rendering in javascript, I was connecting resistors and diodes to aerials and seeing if I could discern anything above the noise floor.

And I did!

I even moved away from people, signal dropped, and as people left for the evening, the signal dropped. Concept, proved.

Now I could tie all my ideas together. I could monitor myself for signs of getting annoyed walking around town (I built-in prediction, too, based on history, time, location and so on) and also see where the crowds where, to better navigate my way around.

Well, not quite, as I didn’t have a sensor network installed around town. And I’m not sure a bearded Oirishman walking around gaffer-taping electronics and aerials to various landmarks would go unnoticed.

But that isn’t the point. This is eminently viable, in my opinion. We have traffic counters, why not people ones? Feed it all back to a central sever, have an app that gives people information in realtime. It is only a rough count, but enough you could build a heatmap of activity across the town.

And there are other uses, too. Music festivals, to help people move from stage-to-stage, crowd control, to help the filth kettle hippies better. All sorts. But mostly I just want to be able to avoid the hotspots in town, even if it means I have to walk the long way round. And the sensors would be cheap to build, easy to install and low maintenance. And again, open the data feeds, let people build more, and better, apps. You could monitor bus stops, and know how many people were going to get on your bus, and wait for the next one (as the bus data isn’t open, due to someone not reading the contract at the council).

A simple, low-tech solution to a question no one has asked, but they are asking the wrong questions. And why yes, yes I am available to head this up, work on it to completion, but I don’t think you can afford me. But do try :)

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