Snapshot: Heat Seek sensor data

In our last two blog posts, we delved deep into the heat/hot water complaint data collected by New York City’s 311 service. We found that the number of complaints per year has been rising since the city began releasing complaint data, and that now over half of all residential rental buildings in NYC report a complaint each year. Now we turn to our data.

During last heating season, we outfitted six buildings with Heat Seek temperature sensors: two in Upper Manhattan, one in the South Bronx, and three in northern Brooklyn, all areas which — according to our Coldmap — are known to have historically high complaint counts.

Red pins on Heat Seek’s cold map mark each building with one or more Heat Seek sensor. To preserve tenant anonymity, all locations are approximate.

From these six buildings, Heat Seek sensors recorded 151,385 hourly temperature readings and caught 3,931 violations, equal to 163 full days without heat. Tenants in these buildings are constantly at risk, never confident that they will receive heat in their homes when they need it most.

These six buildings are just the tip of the iceberg. As we prepare to install sensors in forty buildings this fall, we expect to find similarly troubling results. By increasing accountability, however, we are confident that we can solve New York City’s heating crisis and ensure all New Yorkers have a safe — and warm — place to call home.      

A persistent — and predictable — problem

Last winter, the city received a whopping 230,702 heating complaints, more than any other year since it began publishing 311 data in 2010.

This spike is indicative of a larger problem: NYC’s heating crisis is becoming increasingly dire. After a decrease during the winter of 2011-2012, the complaint count has risen steadily, up 35% over the last three heating seasons. And while it’s understandable that the total complaint count would fluctuate with the severity of the winter, the overall trend is clear. Heating complaints are becoming more and more prevalent in NYC and the crisis is objectively getting worse.

And it’s not just the same individuals making more complaints. The number of unique buildings logging one or more complaint has also increased, following a similar trend as overall complaint count. In winter 2010-11, 35,170 individual buildings submitted at least one heating complaint. Affected buildings decreased to 30,160 in winter 2011, and then increased steadily each subsequent year, reaching an all-time high of 37,648 in winter 2014-15. For reference, there are only 76,829 residential rental buildings in all of NYC according to the NYC Property Tax FY 2014 Annual Report*, meaning roughly half of all rental buildings reported at least one heating complaint last year.

During heating season, which spans October to May, the 311 complaint count regularly exceeds 1000 in a single day. In winter’s harshest months, the complaint count rarely dips below this benchmark. Predictably, there is an inverse relationship between the outdoor temperature and the number of complaints received by the city. The colder the temperature outside, the higher the complaint rate to the city.

Take Thursday, January 8, 2015. Commuters starting their morning were greeted by 20 MPH winds and temperatures in the single digits, conditions that translated to a “feels like” temperature of -6℉. The city’s 311 service was inundated with a record number of complaints -  5,278 in just twenty-four hours. While obviously extreme, the preceding and following days were similarly high. The NYC Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD), which handles these heating and hot water complaints, is understandably overwhelmed. When temperatures dip, complaint counts spike, and HPD is spread especially thin just when they are needed most.

Our aim in drilling into the City’s open data is to shine a light on the severity of the problem, and to raise awareness around the need for change. We’ll continue to post compelling stats throughout the summer as we gear up for heat season 2015-16. We hope you’ll stick with us, and join us in our outrage.

* See page 1, “Market and Assessed Value Profile, Taxable Properties by Property Type FY 2014” - Class 2: Rentals (23,617) and 4-10 Family Rentals (53,212)

The numbers are in (and they’re not pretty)

After analyzing NYC’s 311 data, one thing is clear: no matter how you slice it, heat is a huge issue in NYC. During the 2014-2015 heat season—which spans from October to May—the city’s 311 call service received 230,702 complaints reporting inadequate heat/hot water. For the math majors among us, that’s nearly 1,000 complaints per day, on average. These grievances accounted for 17% of all complaints received by 311 during heating season, making inadequate heat/hot water far and away the most common complaint submitted to the city.

The numbers vary by borough, with the Bronx faring the worst by far. Of the 195 complaint types that can be made through 311, fully ⅓ were regarding heat/hot water last winter in the Bronx. Bronx resident Trudy Pogue, in an interview with ABC 7 News, expressed the truly heartbreaking reality of the issue.

“You go to bed cold,” she said. “You wake up, it’s cold. If you have to go out, it’s cold. When you come in, it’s cold. So how else can you feel but frustrated and angry?”   

Residents in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens don’t fare much better. Nearly 20% of complaints made in Manhattan, 17.5% made in Brooklyn, and 10% made in Queens were about heat/hot water. Only in Staten Island, the borough with the highest median income and highest degree of home ownership, was another complaint type – street condition – more common.

It’s clear that inadequate heat is a widespread problem in NYC. Boilers break, heating oil runs out, residents deal with periodic service disruptions, and in some cases, abusive landlords purposefully withhold heat from their tenants. In the coming weeks, we’ll delve deeper into NYC’s Open Data to see which buildings are suffering from chronic lack of heat, which neighborhoods are most adversely affected, and what patterns emerge when we compare this year’s data to data from years past.

Stay tuned! 

Summer Update: We’re in Business

Hello Friends and Supporters of Heat Seek,

The blog is back! My name is Brendan Crowley and I am Heat Seek’s newest intern (yes,you read that right, they have an intern) and over the next few months I will be churning out posts for your viewing pleasure. There is much to report, so let’s get started.

First, a few notes about our staff and operations. We are happy to announce that we have hired our first two team members to work full-time: Noelle Francois will serve as Heat Seek’s Executive Director and Harold Cooper will serve as our lead Hardware Engineer. Both individuals have dedicated countless hours to Heat Seek’s cause on a volunteer basis, so we are pleased to get them onboard for the long run and are excited to see what they accomplish.

We are also pleased to report that our team is now working primarily out of Civic Hall, a co-working and community space for civic technology startups located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. The space has already proven to be an excellent source of inspiration, contacts, and ideas. We encourage you to come pay us a visit.  

The Heat Seek team during a Sunday scrum at Civic Hall.

Now to the question on all of your minds: what have we been up to?

The short answer? A whole lot.

First and foremost, we have been preparing for our first full-scale deployment in September. We will install 120 sensors in 40 buildings across New York City, a monumental effort made possible by the diligent work of our team, as well as the support of tenants, landlords, community groups, and our many organizational partners. We are excited to analyze the data we collect from these buildings during the winter months and to use our findings to tackle New York City’s heating crisis head on.

We have also been invited to a few local conferences, gaining support for and raising awareness of Heat Seek’s cause. Noelle had the opportunity to appear on a panel at Brooklyn’s Northside Festival entitled “The Future Connected City,” and represented Heat Seek quite nicely. Additionally, a few members of Heat Seek’s team were fortunate enough to attend the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum, a jam-packed two day event dedicated to the future of civic technology. It seemed everyone we crossed paths with wanted to know how they could get involved with Heat Seek! We’re certainly not complaining.

Be on the lookout for more posts in the coming weeks, including analysis of New York City’s current housing dispute, information on Heat Seek’s next fundraising push, and profiles of our team members. Also make sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and look us up on LinkedIn (if you’re into that professional stuff).

Thanks and let’s keep the heat on together this winter. Over and out.

Spring Update

Six months after the close of our Kickstarter campaign, our first winter in New York has finally come to an end. With months of warm weather ahead, we decided to look back at what we’ve accomplished so far, and talk about how to use the next six months to gear up for round two.

One of our biggest early accomplishments was winning the BigApps 2014 competition, earning $25,000 and the praise of Mayor de Blasio. After that we went into production for our pilot program. By electing to build our sensors ourselves, we minimized cost and were able to hold on to a substantial portion of our prize money. We deployed sensors in Brooklyn and the Bronx and went live in November.

As winter wore on, we continued growing our professional network, forging relationships with Microsoft, the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation, Civic Hall, the Flatiron School, and the District Attorney. We also recently obtained sponsorship from Weather Underground, who is giving us free and unlimited access to their API. We received favorable press from Fast Company and CNBC. We took on some new volunteer team members: Jesse, a data specialist; Caroline, a non-profit expert; and Rachel, a social media strategist. At the close of the season, we had 120 sensors purchased and 24 in production.

So, what’s next for Heat Seek? Our plan is to use the summer primarily for outreach and fundraising, keeping our name out there and hopefully raising enough money to hire some of our volunteer staff full-time. While we can’t share all the specifics, one of our main goals is getting all of our hardware up to 99% accuracy, so we can go into next winter with a foolproof fleet of sensors and hubs.

To all of our friends and supporters—thank you so much! Stay tuned for more progress updates as we continue to develop and grow.

Why Cold For Some Means Complications For All

Winter is coming—and if it’s as frigid as the last one, New Yorkers are in for a debilitating few months. Fortunately, New York City tenants have a legal right to heat from October to May. Unfortunately, this right is difficult to enforce, as evidenced by the over 200,000 cold-related complaints the city receives every year. The fact that many citizens—particularly those who live in underprivileged neighborhoods, have young children or are elderly—are forced to endure Northeast winters without adequate heat is a disconcerting public health crisis that ought not to be an issue in the Greatest City on Earth.

Although not everyone suffers from a lack of adequate heat, everyone can empathize with those who do. More than that, however, there are a myriad of social complications that arise from cold living conditions that affect everyone, especially because we live and work in such close proximity. In fact, research has shown that physically cold temperatures can produce emotionally cold behavior—something New York certainly doesn’t need any more of. Other studies have suggested that warm temperatures are important for stimulating memory and creativity, which can impact success at work and at school. Cold temperatures also negatively impact your sleep cycle, and the temperature of many underserviced New York apartments can drop far below the optimal sleeping temperature (around 68 degrees). Sleep deprivation, of course, has profound effects on productivity and mood. Because a bad mood can be transferred as easily as a bad germ, the emotional cost that a cold apartment has on one person can be detrimental to us all. Cold temperatures can also weaken immune system response, especially among disadvantaged populations, leading to additional—and unnecessary—stress on our healthcare system.

Living in an unbearably cold apartment is an inhumane reality, one that has subtle but far-reaching social and economic ramifications. A cripplingly cold apartment is not just an individual concern. It’s a societal concern. Not only because we have a responsibility to look out for those around us, but because their well-being affects our well-being too. Yes, Heat Seek’s sensors will directly benefit those living in cold conditions, but they will also have benefits that extend far beyond one apartment or one person.


Remington Tonar is a senior strategy consultant at Siegelvision, a organizational identity firm that helps nonprofits define their purpose, articulate their value, and build their brands. His clients include major hospital systems, top universities, and international NGOs. Follow him on Twitter at @remtonar.

All-Nighter Case Day

Jarryd and William tried to pull an all-nighter to get the case printed in time for the Kickstarter campaign. The Flatiron School graciously allowed us to use their MakerBot Replicator Mini to print, but unfortunately the spool kept getting stuck so a team member had to hand-feed it filament for hours. William made it until 5:30am, Jarryd made it to 7am. Miraculously, despite the sleep deprivation and several botched attempts, the cases were printed successfully!


Redesigned Cases Coded!

Daniel has finished modeling out in OpenSCAD, and the Flatiron School just got a 3D printer, so we’re going to try our hand at printing them ourselves this weekend. We can’t wait to see what they look like once they’re real.


SparkFun Sponsorship

Daniel just shared some awesome news! We got sponsored by SparkFun! They supply basically all the parts we need to make the sensors and they’re giving us a 30% discount, which is amazing. We gotta get their name up on the site as soon as possible. They are a great brand to be able to put our names next to, and the discount will allow us to provide more sensors with the same funding. Thanks so much, SparkFun!

Launching a Kickstarter Campaign

The time has come! We know we can’t rely solely on BigApps, so we’re launching a kickstarter campaign to try to raise money for sensor production. We want to be able to give out as many as we can to people who need them, and it’s always been our mission not to charge anything, especially since many of the tenants who need them most are already struggling to make ends meet, so we’re turning to our neighbors for help. We think we can get $50,000, and with that money we should be able to come up with 1,000+ sensors. More details to follow.

Switching to DigiMesh

We were using the ZigBee protocol for the mesh network but it looks like DigiMesh is a better option. With ZigBee, all the nodes in the network need to be on all the time to receive messages, but with DigiMesh, they can sleep most of the time, and then wake up in synchrony to transmit signals at a predetermined time. This means our battery life could potentially be over a year.

If we want our heat logs to hold up in court, we’ll have to be able to verify that our sensor readings are accurate. Having tenants have to change batteries in the middle of heat season would involve opening up the sensor, changing the battery, and then re-applying the tamper proof tape, but if the batteries could last an entire season it would eliminate that need. Plus, we want the sensors to be as easy to use as possible - basically “set it and forget it” - and this would mean tenants could do just that and not have to worry about the sensor at all once its installed.

Promo Video

We shot our promo video today, or at least the bulk of it. The video team volunteered their time out of the kindness of their hearts and their belief in our cause, so Heat Seek just got what would be thousands of dollars worth of video production work for free. It’s unbelievable how lucky we’ve been in stumbling across incredibly talented people who want to help us out. It really is a testament to the incredible city we live in. We’ll share the video as soon as we have a final cut!

Partnering with CASA

We just had a great phone call with CASA (Community Action for Safe Apartments), a community organization that helps tenants in the Southwest Bronx organize around issues of affordable housing and safe living conditions. According to their Facebook page:

CASA’s work is grounded in the belief that everyone has a basic right to a safe, healthy, affordable and a stable home. Through unifying neighbors, educating and organizing tenants, we are shifting the balance of power in our neighborhoods, all the while protecting our homes!

Like every community group we’ve talked to, they’re incredibly supportive and excited about what we’re doing. We’re hoping we can present at one of their fall meetings and get sensors to interested tenants in time for heating season!


Winning the Battleground

We won the popular vote at the NYCBigApps competition, and then went on to win the Battleground, earning us an automatic pass to the finals in September! Amazing. Thanks so much to everyone who voted, and to everyone who came out and supported us. Thanks also to our amazing team who made this all happen, and to the judges who voted UNANIMOUSLY for Heat Seek!