Ellen Stone: black, 74-year-old widow, lives alone in 1BR apartment on second floor of four-story brownstone, West Harlem. No AC, but a fan and shade from surrounding trees. College degree, worked for 30 years as a librarian before retiring, on fixed income. In good health, but has problems with asthma and arthritis. Has many friends in the neighborhood, but no longer goes out much, and doesn’t have a laptop or a smartphone.
It’s pretty easy to tell when it’s hot out: you can feel it. But how hot is too hot? When does discomfort become danger?
“We wanted to find a way to alert people to these heat dangers without complicated technology,” explained the team member Brooke Havlik, director of communications for Harlem Heat Project partner WE ACT. The answer it came up with: Install heat sensors with a built-in alarm system inside every New York apartment.
These sensors would look much like the 30 that were installed this summer as part of the project in residences in Harlem, measuring humidity and temperature. But in addition to recording data, these sensors would analyze and report it out. That is, when the measured indoor temperature reaches a certain critical point, the sensor alerts residents to the problem through an alarm system, such as red flashing thermometer or a simple sonic beep.
In addition, the alarm threshold could be adjusted to each person’s individual needs – with a lower threshold for more vulnerable populations like the elderly or families with small children.
The service would then outline tips for mitigating the negative effects of overheating, offering options inside the home (like taking a cold shower, drinking water, opening windows and turning on fans) and a list of options nearby linked to your zip code (like addresses of cooling centers, and well-air conditioned public spaces and stores).
In order to engage the resident’s community, if temperatures reach extremely dangerous levels, a built-in automated system connected to a phone tree would call five emergency contacts, including friends, family, doctors, and potentially outside local health services, depending on the user’s preference.
The sensor would also serve as a sort of macro extension of the Harlem Heat Project. The temperature and humidity data points collected would be available as open source data, giving scientists and researchers a more accurate reading of the overwhelming incidences of high indoor heat in New York City, and tracking graduations and fluctuations on both a building and neighborhood level.
The comprehensive swath of individual and aggregate data that resulted could then be used as evidence to push policy change, or to convince NYCHA to fund more cooling mechanisms in its buildings.
The team proposed starting small and scaling up, initially targeting only the most vulnerable communities, like elderly people living alone. But it noted that this mechanism only works if it is standardized and distributed on a mass scale.
For instance, to prevent fires, every apartment in New York City is required by law to be outfitted with a smoke detector. And to prevent children from falling out of buildings, window guards are required in all apartment windows that house children under 10.
Team members suggested that these safeguards had at one time seemed impossible to enforce on a mass scale at first, but are now staples in NYC apartments. Similarly, a heat sensor/alarm could become indispensable, implemented either through a landlord mandate, or by a private service like AARP.
In discussion with the panel, areas for Improvement were suggested, including:
Addressing privacy concerns associated with collecting and reporting so much data. What information would be sent to the city? The team could alter the model to be more easily personalized based on user preference – instead delivering data every 15 minutes, for instance, people could opt to send only once or twice a day.
Instead of alerting residents when the temperature has already reached some critical point, why not implement more predictive strategies? Based on the aggregate data already gathered by the Harlem Heat Project, scientists can begin to model the trajectory of indoor heat waves. Then sensors could use the predictive models to warn residents days earlier, or alert them how long a wave will last.