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Sensor Data up for Grabs

A startup offers feeds for thousands of sensor devices—and wants others to open up their data, too.

Distributed wireless sensors are increasingly being used to monitor all sorts of things—from water quality in a river to the oven in your kitchen. A startup in the U.K. called Pachube wants to kick-start a revolution in new apps and services by providing ways for anyone to share and access all this sensor data.

Radiation watch: Pachube feeds were used to create a visualization showing radiation levels in Japan after the nuclear meltdown.

The 11-person firm, started in 2007, has developed sensor gateway that collects data feeds in many different formats and converts them into commonly used standards in real time. Pachube (pronounced “patchbay”) processes six million points of data per day, and recently built its own cloud-based storage platform to handle a growing amount of data.

The falling cost of sensor electronics means that equipment such as electricity meters and home security systems increasingly comes with technology that can be used for remote monitoring, often via the Internet. A growing number of electronics hobbyists are also adapting devices to give them sensor capabilities. Pachube believes much of this could prove to useful to end users and third-party companies if it were made more accessible.

One of the issues is that sensor data is often encrypted. For example, a company such as Diebold might make a sensor to monitor your home for security, and that information could be useful to a homeowner who wants to feed it into a home automation system, but the data is stored in inaccessible format. Similarly, the Nike Plus exercise system for the iPhone uses a protected format to transmit and store running data. Many sensors do use open standards, such as XML, for database storage, but the data is protected.

Pachube hopes to encourage more companies to open access to sensors by showing them how useful sensor feeds can be. It converts available feeds into standard formats and makes them available to app developers, researchers, and anyone else. The company charges $2 per month to gain access to more historical data and for accessing large quantities of data. After the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster last month, developers used feeds from automated radiation sensors to create tools for monitoring radiation levels. Another feed, from the Logan River in Australia, transmits data for carbon and nitrogen levels. Some hobbyists have built robots that can talk to each other over Pachube.

“Pachube is the Web equivalent of a telephone exchange,” says Ken Boak, who uses an open-hardware platform called Arduino to build small robotics. “It allows me to get data and transmit commands between simple microcontroller devices without having to be an expert in Web programming or have any knowledge of server coding.”

Japan feeds: This image shows a wider view of radiation levels in Japan. The data is fed from Geiger counters used by civilians.

Pachube converts sensor data that arrives in a unique format—say, text strings related to a home automation system or the AI commands for a robot—into more useable formats such as XML or JavaScript Object Notation.

“Pachube is a disruptive pioneer because, with few exceptions, traditional sensor network players have not moved very far beyond relatively closed systems and platforms. They are setting a new paradigm,” says Glen Allmendinger, the president of Harbor Research.

Since launching the beta service in 2009, Pachube has developed programming tools to allow developers to combine multiple feeds. The company is also working with developers to share revenue on apps.

Pachube is not the only open-source sensor network. For example, OpenSense (open.sen.se) provides a similar model for online feeds and a different set of applications.

“Pachube is targeted mostly at the hobbyist in the sensor and building sector,” says Jeff Healey, a spokesperson for Axeda, a company that provides communication technology for many industrial devices. Healey says his company’s sensor network also uses open formats, and the company provides commercial-grade developer and platform support for clients.

Ed Borden, business development manager at Pachube, says consumers will eventually demand more access to sensor data. He notes that some auto insurers offer discounts to drivers who attach sensors to their car to track how they drive. Eventually, he argues, drivers will want to use that data, too.

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