Smart Homes

November 20, 2009

Three out of five are on food stamps. Four out of five newborns are on Medicaid. Obesity is rampant, as is diabetes. Crime rates are high, and graduation rates are low.

A cynic might say life would be better in the Cleveland communities neighboring Case Western Reserve University if the people there acted smarter. Researchers at the Case Western think life would be better if the people there had smarter homes.

The university is preparing to embark on an 18-month research project, beginning in early 2010, in which it plans to transform 104 homes in the impoverished neighborhoods near its campus into "smart homes," powered by a super-high-speed network that is approximately one thousand times faster than a normal high-speed Internet connection. Up to 72 percent of those homes are not currently connected to the Web at all.

The idea, says Lev Gonick, Case Western’s CIO, is to study whether hyper-speed networks -- and the suite of services they can support -- can help fix the health and education problems in those communities. “We hypothesize that creating interactive, home-based extensions of health, learning and safety, along with energy management, will lead to positive outcomes,” Gonick said in an interview.

What exactly is a “home-based extension,” anyway? While Gonick, who announced the project on his blog this week, said that the university and its 18 commercial partners are playing the details close to the chest at the moment, he did offer some examples.

The high bandwidth and reliability of the one-gigabit connection -- which would connect the smart homes not only to the university but also to various hospitals, museums, libraries, and public buildings that Case Western already serves with its “backbone” network -- would allow residents to video conference with their health care providers, for instance, Gonick said. Wireless networks inside each home could take readings from pedometers, blood pressure monitors, and other health-monitoring tools and send them instantly to the residents’ doctors through the backbone network.

Neighborhood video surveillance, broadcast to every home as well as the six public safety organizations in the community, would be another application. Same with utility meter monitors, which would calculate each home’s energy consumption, compare it with other homes in the neighborhood, and provide information on how to use water, gas and energy more efficiently to minimize utility bills.

“Each one of these examples has got the use of very high-end connectivity,” Gonick said. “And there is no consumer service today that you could buy, even if you had the money and you were inclined, to equal a gigabit for residential use. It simply doesn’t exist.”

Nor does any similar program -- at least not in this hemisphere, he said. “There’s no other city in the country that’s doing this even for commercial purposes, never mind research purposes,” Gonick said.

But Gonick is hardly winging it: He has a history of democratizing Web access, most notably through his work with OneCommunity, a non-profit that built an enormous fiber optic network for public institutions throughout Northern Ohio. "This piece," he said of the new project, called the University Circle Innovation Zone, "is spreading that connectivity to the neighbors of the university."

He emphasized that project is not meant as a charity. Although Gonick and his colleagues are hypothesizing positive outcomes, he said it is first and foremost a research program.

“What difference would it make if we were actually providing real-time, interactive wellness education and chronic-disease care from the home rather than the clinical setting? That’s a research question,” he said. “So there’s nothing altruistic about the technology endeavor -- it’s actually trying to change models for health care, models for public safety, models for energy consumption and energy management.”

Gonick added that the project would also include features designed to improve access to certain educational resources for children in the homes, with the intention of boosting graduation rates in STEM courses.

The equipment has been ordered, he said, and research is set to begin shortly after New Year's.

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