Oxford Flood Network brings internet of things to the community

Oxford community scheme seeks volunteers to adopt internet of things (IoT) sensors and crowdsource floodwater data

Oxford could get a local early warning flood system through the power of the internet of things (IoT), through a project between Love Hz, a whitespace spectrum specialist, and web domain infrastructure lynchpin Nominet.

With Oxfordshire among parts of the UK heavily hit by storms and flooding over the winter of 2013 and 2014, the race has been on to improve monitoring of water levels in vulnerable river basins. For Oxford this means the Thames and Cherwell, which meet to the south of the town centre.

The Environment Agency already provides an early warning service, but its resources are limited and it uses very few, expensive and professional sensors to monitor water levels in flood-prone areas.

According to Love Hz director Ben Ward, it was this uncertainty that led him to the idea for the Oxford Flood Network.

“I often spend time working away from home and I get flood alerts, but I don’t know if my home is under water, or if the Environment Agency is being over-cautious,” said Ward. “There is only so much data from the Environment Agency, so they err on the side of caution.”

TV whitespace spectrum

The Oxford Flood Network is one of a number of IoT schemes backed by comms regulator Ofcom in a demonstration of the use of TV whitespace spectrum, the unused gaps that exist between TV stations.

Nominet research fellow Bryan Marshall explained that his team was looking at the IoT on an ongoing basis.

“As this is a ground-up, grass roots project, rather than something coming from large infrastructure companies, it’s more interesting to us because it has the potential to be far more disruptive,” Marshall said.

In this case, Nominet is supplying parts of a white space network it owns, set up from spectrum left defunct after the digital switchover.

Because the availability of different white space frequencies varies and can change rapidly, Nominet’s involvement will be vital to the project in helping it work out what devices can use what frequencies in a given area, and for how long at a time.

The Oxford Flood Network hopes to set up a network of 30 sensors monitoring the river and groundwater levels around the city. Earlier in October it set up its first link between Oxford city centre and the floodplain.

Using open source Arduino-based sensors suspended above water, the network will use ultrasonic distance measuring to track water levels in real time, which will be wirelessly transmitted to the white space network, which in turn will relay the information back to Nominet.

The information supplied will be made available to the community as open data, meaning anybody who cares to use it can link, share or publish it. In the future, a crowdsourced map of flood levels will give residents a clearer picture of the situation in their area.

The scheme may also provide invaluable data about whether or not flood prevention schemes even work.

Although only three sensors have been installed so far, Ward said the plan was to get 10 online by the end of October 2014.

Call for volunteers

The Oxford Flood Network is currently looking for volunteers to do so and, with the National Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, located in nearby Wallingford, they may be easy to come by.

Volunteers could be either local individuals, groups or even businesses with access to locations such as streams, wells or frequently-flooded cellars, with an interest in installing or adopting a sensor.

“Community involvement is important,” said Ward, “I want people to have an understanding of and interest in making the internet of things work.

“If we present the sensor as a box, with a battery to be replaced and an LED to say if it’s working or not, that’s enough for most people,” he added.

Ultimately, said Ward, the scheme could even go beyond Oxford to become a federated network of sensors providing community flood warnings in at risk areas around the country.

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