The Long Road Around The Weather Underground

The year is 2013, I’ve bought a small vacation house in western Michigan, in the country, way out in the country. Western Michigan gets a lot of snow in the winter, or at least it used to. We haven’t had much snow the last 2 years, but that’s not the point. Weather can make or break a weekend away, so knowing what’s going on in the area, weather wise, is really helpful.

Being an engineer and programmer I really wanted to be able to automate systems around the house and track the weather patterns over time. There are certain websites that will give you access to this data, some charge a nominal fee, others not so nominal, and others offer that data for free with limited access. Free sounded really good, especially after buying a house, but limited access wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted access to the data as often as I needed, and near real-time. Also, for a reliable system, this would require extremely reliable internet, and my internet connection at the house is anything but reliable.

This led me down a very long path to finding reliable sensors that allowed local access to the data, outside of a simple display. After a few searches on the internet I found myself at Ambient Weather. This is a great site for everything weather related, most of their offerings are around a basic weather display, but they also sell some kits that are WiFi enabled. In general the the WiFi systems use their connectivity to send data to Weather Underground, which is one of those free but limited sites I mentioned before. Wunderground is a great community of weather enthusiasts who install their own sensor arrays and push data to “the cloud” aka Wunderground’s servers. Developers can get access to this data using the Wunderground API, which I’ve used many time before on less intensive projects.

This is great, but again my access would be limited. I needed reliable real-time data if I wanted to integrate it into an automation system. I knew the sensor arrays had radios to transmit their data to the base stations, but intercepting and decoding that data was a bit beyond my skillset at the time. Although I did pick up a SDR to attempt it, with little success.

Long story short, I ended up purchasing this system WS-1001 WiFi Observer. It has a decent sensor array and is very reliable, but I was stuck with using the Wunderground API for data access. It worked great for tracking weather patterns, but the automation system would have to wait.

Fast-forward almost 3 years, I started working at NAR in the R&D Lab. We have a mission to improve quality of life for homeowners and educate our membership on the coming technology shifts in real estate. Smart Homes and home automation were on the rise, and members wanted and needed to know more about the benefits and pitfalls of a connected home. My previous work on local automation really shined when it came to the security concerns of a connected home. With little to no internet required, the attack vector was extremely small, someone would need physical access to the network to do any real damage. The search began again, with vigor, for local weather data. Luckily other people with far more skills in reverse engineering RF had been busy building software and hardware to address my concerns.

Ambient Weather had sold a device to do exactly what I needed, the Airbridge Receiver, it was out-of-stock and pretty expensive, but it actually works with the exact sensor array I have and the more expensive Davis Instruments systems. I was eventually able to track down the producer of the receiver, SmartBedded, they market the receiver as the MeteoStick. I went ahead and purchased a few sticks as well as the individual sensor arrays that I’d had great success with over the last 3 years. A few weeks later all the components had arrived, I put together the sensor array and plugged in the meteostick, and holy crap, I had real-time weather data streaming into my laptop with no internet required!

Grafana Weather Dashboard

Grafana Weather Dashboard

We’ve since gone on to build out a whole system for monitoring the health of buildings, including our own IEQ sensors as well integration with smart meters for monitoring energy consumption. We call the system Rosetta Home. I’ll be giving a talk about the system at a technical conference at the end of March. We’re also working with several non-profit organizations that are doing work with residential energy retrofits.

Facebook Live Office Hours: Adventures in WiFi, and WCR visits!

This week during our Facebook Live Office Hours, Joe talked about a new blog series at crtlabs.org where he chronicles some of the challenges of resetting smart home devices. Then, we spoke to two members from the Women’s Council of REALTORS® about their experiences with smart homes! Don’t forget to visit our page at facebook.com/crtlabs, and like it to get notified when we go live every Friday!

Facebook Live Office Hours: Adventures in WiFi, and WCR visits! from CRTLabs on Vimeo.

Adventures in WiFi: Smart Home Devices, Meet Your New Router

A long, long time ago — in internet years, anyway — usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen codified ten general principles for interface design. Nielsen had the then-new Web in mind, but some 20-plus years later these principles continue to be relevant.

My favorite of Nielsen’s principles has always been this:

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo (emphasis mine).

I’ve been thinking a lot about these principles, because I recently replaced the nine-year old WiFi router in my house. At the same time I changed the network name and password to make access to the router more secure. If I had done this a few years ago, I’d have told my family what the new network name and passwords were, they’d have connected their smart phones (because smart phone makers long ago figured out how to support undo and redo), and all would have been well.

But now I’ve got a bunch of smart home devices — thermostats, security cameras, air quality monitors, smart lights, and more — and getting all of them to play nice with the new WiFi network has proven to be, well, adventurous. In this first of a series of blog posts, I’ll highlight the easiest, least frictional experience I had with one device that sets a high bar for the others, user-experience wise. That device is the Logitech POP Home Switch.

First, though, an acknowledgement: not all smart devices are the same. They do different things and require different levels of security regarding changes made to them. The steps I need to take reconfiguring my front porch security camera should be different than what I need to do to the POP Switch. Yet the reason I’m highlighting the POP Switch experience is because it is well-done and elegant, and security and elegance are not mutually exclusive. More “complicated” smart devices can learn lessons from it.

The POP Switch Experience

Logitech’s POP Switch comprises two parts — a bridge, which plugs directly into a wall outlet, and a switch, a 2.5” square rubberized controller that can work with things such as smart lights. Pressing the switch in various ways allows you to change lighting scenes (for example) without getting out your smart phone and using an app. Truth be told, it’s a sweet product.

But what makes it especially nice is the way it behaved when I fired up my new router with new credentials. The bridge immediately started blinking (because it was now offline), and finding where to go in the POP app to get the bridge back on line was a snap. And if a good interface captures 1) the task you’re performing, 2) instructions on how to accomplish the task, and 3) the status of what’s going on, the POP app hits it out of the park. Here are the sufficiently brief steps I had to take to get my POP Switch onto a new network, as experienced through the app:


It probably does without saying that my experience with other smart home devices in my house didn’t go as smoothly.

Why Is This Important?

Good design is always important. But it’s desperately needed in the still-new world of smart home devices. As the department within the National Association of REALTORS® that is most focused on smart home technology, CRT Labs has a responsibility to help shape the nascent world of smart home tech, both for homebuyers and for the REALTORS® they hire. IBM’s Security Intelligence blog recently pointed out in a thoughtful piece that many design decisions are made for the first owner of something, and that the needs of subsequent owners are often neglected.

“The needs of subsequent owners” sound a lot like the needs of a homebuyer, don’t they?

Over the coming months I’ll continue to document my experiences with smart home devices and changing configurations, documenting as best as I can which ones are painful and which ones are relatively painless. More and more smart devices will be included in real estate transactions, and the smart home industry has a lot riding on “support redo and undo.”

#013-Things Thursday – Ring-a-ding-ding, smart city progress & more

A graph showing the air quality for Louisville Kentucky. Anything that is 51 or above is moderate air quality. Anything 50 and below is good air quality. In Louisville, from 02/06/17 to 02/16/17, the air quality was reported as mostly good.

Using smart city data that is available through open services, I was able to create this graph on Louisville air quality. Anything 50 and below is good air quality and anything above that is moderate air quality.

It looks like Amazon and Google are looking to use their voice hubs as a way to make calls. Also, smart cities need best practices just like smart homes. What about the niche of smart home security becoming a fertile ground for startups?

  1. How the Internet of Things inspired a new startup niche (via Entrepreneur)
    With a diverse array of devices from a large set of manufacturers, security of the connected home could be compromised. Enter devices and services to help secure your devices. Entrepreneur puts together a round up of companies who are trying to help make the smart home more secure.
  2. Amazon Echo and Google Home want to be your new house phone (via Engadget)
    As Amazon tries to even the playing field in the communications services with its release of Chime, their version of Google Hangouts, Engadget ponders what it would mean for the Amazon Echo or Google Home to become a communications hub. There are a lot of hurdles to clear before this happens, but being able to quickly communicate through these devices is something I look forward to.
  3. Smart cities get connectivity guidance from Connected City Blueprint (via readwrite)
    A smart city will become a data-rich platform for a REALTORS’ business. Micro-climate data, traffic flow, pedestrian flow and air quality will all become data points in the listings of the future. So, what smart cities are missing right now are a blueprint, or best practices, for deployment. Enter the Connected City Blueprint. It allows for cities to collaborate and share their experiences, helping those who are starting on the smart city path see what hurdles others have encountered.
  4. How’s the air up there? In Louisville, you can just ask your lightbulbs (via C|NET)
    For cities moving into the smart city arena, Louisville may be a great example of how to do it. They recently partnered with IFTTT to provide smart city data through their services. So, you can make your Philips Hue bulb change color to indicate air quality. Or, you can graph air quality of Louisville (see image above). It’s pretty cool. I created an applet to capture air quality data when it changes and put it in a Google Sheet. It took me about 3 minutes to set this up. Once more cities do things like this, we may have an amazing repository to pull from and create some cool mashups of real estate data and smart city data.

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook.

Facebook Live Office Hours: mHub Tour

CRT Labs extended our office space by moving in to a small office at mHub, a makerspace here in Chicago. This will help our engineers develop and test our electronics projects. We took a tour of mHub during our Office Hours to show off some of the cool new tools we’ll have access to in the space. As always, if you like our Facebook page, you can watch these videos live on Fridays at 3PM EST!

Facebook Live Office Hours: mHub Tour from CRTLabs on Vimeo.