Fun with Technology: Heartbeat of the City

How T4G made life in downtown Halifax look a little brighter

There’s no better time to reflect on the year than in December. With holiday lights twinkling around the city, we’re remembering a lighting design project of our own – one that lights up an area of Barrington St., directly across the street from Grand Parade. Thanks to the Downtown Halifax Business Commission’s Gritty to Pretty beautification grant (for individuals and businesses to seek funding to improve areas of downtown Halifax), the Barrington Benches project was born.

Barrington Benches began in 2013, with T4G joining the fun during phase two of the project. With a 3D Interactive Mosaic and new benches in place, T4G used algorithms, sensor technology, and LED lighting to develop an interactive digital display called Heartbeat of the City. As pedestrians walk by the benches, sensors measure the amount of movement near the area – when foot traffic is slow, the lighting evokes a sense of calm, and when the area is busy, the lights react in such a way to reflect the increased energy.

I recently chatted with Rickey Pannell, co-lead of T4G’s Innovation Lab, and Andrew Kenny, a co-op student from Dalhousie University and junior developer who created the Heartbeat of the City prototype during his placement.


Q & A:

BM: How did you get involved with the Barrington Benches/Heartbeat of the City project? Tell me a little bit about your involvement with the project.

RP: The project was born out of conversations had with the Waterfront Development group before my time at T4G. There were lots of ideas around sensors, lights, and social media. The bench project was a good fit for the concept and the available funding.

AK: I developed and designed both the code and the infrastructure (wiring, Arduino, lights, etc.) for Barrington Benches.

BM: What excited you about this project?

AK: The most attractive thing about this project was the opportunity to work in depth with a new technology. Though I had used Arduinos before, it was never to this extent. This project gave me a chance to work in a field of development that most developers won’t ever experiment in. It built a useful skill that allowed me to bring my coding into the physical world.

RP: It was good to work with the sensors and build a custom light controller. I liked getting to connect with engineers that could actually build a circuit board that I didn’t have to worry would catch fire!

BM: What types of innovative technology did you work with?

AK: The innovative tech we got to use was mainly Arduinos and all of the circuitry that comes with using them. The languages used were C++/C which are known to be a pain at times, but are very fast.

BM: What exactly is Arduino?

RP: Arduino is an open-source, programmable microcontroller that is ideal for small sensor-related projects.

BM: What did you learn from your involvement in this project?

AK: One of the biggest lessons I learned was that you can’t always do it all. Once the project got to the point where I was soldering and attempting to put the infrastructure together, it became very difficult. The learning curve became too steep and that’s the point where the engineer came in to take over some of the infrastructure. He was extremely skilled and made the process much easier.

RP: I learned a ton about electronics and electrical work in general. I learned about how to run conduit and keep things waterproof.

BM: How will you apply what you’ve learned to future projects?

RP: Definitely bring the engineer and electrician on board from the very beginning! I also have a better understanding of the spectrum of quality that exists with electrical hardware.

BM: Do you believe this project enriched your co-op work experience?

AK: Yes. Part of the reason I did the co-op program at Dal is to improve my skills as a developer. This project pushed me into an area I knew little about and gave me knowledge that I can transfer, in one way or another, to any problem solving I have to do. As a result, I have more to offer as both a student and a professional.

BM: Do you believe the opportunity to participate in this project was unique to working for T4G?

AK: This experience is definitely unique to T4G. Some companies will put co-ops to work on writing documentation or working on components of projects that are considered low impact. Here, I’ve had the opportunity to build a project that explores new areas for T4G. It’s great for my skill development and it’s a good way for T4G to explore new areas without risking the time of other important projects.

BM: What was the best part about working on this project?

RP: Seeing our efforts come to life on Barrington St.

AK: For me, the best part of the project was getting to work with the Arduinos. The Arduino is such a powerful device and learning how to better use it was a blast.

Setting up the technology

BM: What was the biggest challenge with the project?

AK: Two major challenges were implementing the infrastructure and the budget. Designing the infrastructure was great, but putting the physical pieces together was very challenging. Soldering and building circuit boards is really difficult without the right equipment and experience. Budget was a challenge because we had to attempt to keep the lights and infrastructure cost effective.

BM: In what ways do you think innovation and technology can play a role in future community development projects?

AK: Technology has always been a great way to solve problems and innovative ideas are always attractive. Solving problems in a community using both can be a great way to get people talking about better ways to contribute. From there it can cascade.

RP: And exploring new tech opens the door for us to do new types of cool work.

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Bobbi MacInnis

Bobbi MacInnis

Bobbi is a natural born storyteller. Her characteristic writing style embodies her quirky sense of humour, fun-loving attitude, and zany outlook on life. When she isn’t spinning a tale, Bobbi can be found “getting her science on,” researching and studying animal behaviour.