The Good (and Scary) Possibilities of Monitoring Your Personal Space

Courtesy Lapka

The Lapka personal environment monitor sounds kind of nice. With a Sapelle wood finish over well-engineered electronics, it looks nice, too. Still, I’m pretty sure that this little device from Russia will bring with it all kinds of pain.

The Lapka fits into a new category of quantified-self gadgets—instead of tracking footsteps and stairs climbed, it monitors the surrounding environment. Its four sensors analyze and report on radiation, electromagnetic fields, humidity, even the level of nitrates in food. Users can shove one end of the device into an apple and measure how organic it is.

Each elegantly designed sensor plugs into an iPhone’s headphone jack to feed its data into equally elegant software. So this moves beyond the pedometer generation of quantified-self gadgets into quant heaven: urban measurement, or metrolytics.

Will a lot of people out there pay $220 to learn about their humidity situation in real time? I don’t think so. I do, however, think a lot of people will be interested in the pollution levels around them and the quality of their drinking water, metrics which aren’t that far beyond Lapka’s current abilities.

You can measure these types of things today, and city organizations do publish daily notices about air quality and studies evaluating local drinking water. But these metrolytics devices portend something much more dramatic: rich feeds coming in that will rank cities and neighborhoods based on millions of data points.

One of the Lapka engineers told me that in Russia, radiation levels can vary dramatically from city to city. There’s every chance that people will deal with this information as they have been for decades, absorbing it without much change.

The other scenario, though, which seems more likely to me, is that people will act on repeated iPhone wake-up calls about their awful air quality, putting new pressure on local officials. In addition to competing on jobs, lifestyle, and real estate, cities will have to compete out in the open on their environmental records. This is a proposition that’s sure to please some and horrify others.

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