The digital gap in rural (remote) regions is considered a strategic issue for Developing, but also Developed Countries, a clear limitation of living conditions, and one of the most significant causes of emigration, loss of popular heritage and traditions. The connection to the digital World represents the most significant way to provide access to information and cultural exchange, but also to basic social services like telemedicine and distance learning. Additionally, in the very last years, a digital channel is more and more requested to transport information related to Things and Services.
In rural scenarios, the possibility to acquire, share and control information associated to house and/or environment may signify not only additional comfort, but also energy saving, costs reduction, improved life quality, advanced security, health assistance. Nonetheless, transforming a rural living place into an intelligent one does not make real sense, without a network. When a network is available, Things and Services may be inserted in a virtual social network, as the Humans do. The inhabitants may share, compare, and optimize house managing. Or, even more, they could delegate management to somebody else. Security control can be assigned to an external authority. Energy consumption can be administered at a Municipality level. Health assistance can be supervised by a medical unit.
Bringing a networked intelligent platform to rural places is normally limited by bandwidth availability and end-users technological skill. Network operators have no significant advantage to operate in the Countryside, because of the restricted number of possible subscribers. Furthermore, rural citizens are typically unfamiliar with high technology and intelligent systems.
Starting from these basic concepts, we have developed an implementation scheme to facilitate adoption of intelligent systems in the Countryside. It is based on the realization of a very low cost, wideband last-mile Intranet network, on the construction of extremely low cost sensors and controllers, on a strong participation of the inhabitants, on the enrolment of University students during the design, realization and technological transfer phases. The scheme is being successfully implemented in a peculiar location in the Italian Countryside.
The experiment has been organized and developed in the Municipality of Verrua Savoia, in the Monferrato region, a huge hilly, mainly agricultural area in North-Western Italy, not far from the city of Torino. The village covers a territory of about 16 square kilometers, where about 1400 inhabitants live, with half of the population aging more than sixty-five years old. Very few factories and commercial activities are present; the economy is mainly agricultural, for ninety percent devoted to family needs. Most of the people aging between 15 and 60 are commuters and travel far from the village, staying outside for a large part of the day. Topographically, the Municipality area is formed by more than thirty islets, some of them being connected exclusively through dirty roads.
As a business case, for ICT companies, the Municipality is a losing affair: for long times, no wideband connectivity has been provided to the inhabitants and still now, several hamlets are not provided with cabled ADSL connectivity.
The relative distance from the city, the average age of the population, the significant presence of commuters and the lack of ICT facilities and ICT know-how make the selected location a representative case of a general remote rural context.
To set-up any kind of network study, the first step is represented by bandwidth availability and end-user connectability. To bridge this initial gap, at first, a Municipality wireless network has been realized, in order to interconnect all the hamlets of the village. To lower the costs and avoid expenses, network design the construction of hardware components have been developed by a first group of University students, during their courses or internships. Citizens have participated to the network realization, installing autonomously client equipments for connecting to the network. Additionally, Internet connectivity has been provided for free to all subscribers, transporting bandwidth from an Internet exchange to the village by means of a high performance point–to-point radio-link.
Once this first phase has been completed, we have started developing home automation facilities for each subscriber. Citizens have been provided with one controller that can be connected to several sensors, a large number of personal Ethernet devices, and actuators. The controller, the sensors and the actuators have been built by means of extremely-low-cost devices, developed on purpose for larger scale applications in rural environments. These open hardware solutions have been designed and realized by a second group of University students. Among the several parameters that can be monitored are: temperature and humidity of the relevant rooms, unexpected gas/water leakages in the living environments, mechanical and vibrational state of buildings, ground humidity. The list of Ethernet devices comprises cameras, loudspeakers, light detectors, etc. As actuators, the controller is able to manage thermostats, fuel burners, stoves, automated wells, alarming units and again any kind of Ethernet based actuator.
In the same time, a customized network environment, together with a dedicated web platform, has been developed, to favor an easy and integrated management of the sensing and controlling components. The collected information is transferred to a general monitoring console, hosted in the Municipality building, which offers a global overview of the situation of the whole village, and allows an upper and immediate level of protection and intervention. Its functionality can be undertaken by the owner or delegated to the Municipality console, depending on the presence/absence/capability of the house holder himself.
Moreover, we are developing a dedicated infrastructure to provide remote control of the living conditions of elder people, without affecting their privacy. The system is realized thanks to an extremely low cost wireless passive tracking platform, which detects information about the activity inside the house. A dedicated algorithm processes the acquired information, thanks to statistical comparisons and cross-correlation computations originated from data acquired during certain amounts of periods. This solution does not require any action by the inhabitant, neither wearing a device, nor being confident with technology: hence it can be exploited to a very general case.
Results and outcomes
The network has been constructed between August and October 2010 and the number of subscribers has been increasing continuously, becoming approximately 200 in March 2012 (over a total of about 600 families). Surprisingly (but not very much), not only young people were interested to the new technology: in fact, the Municipality was forced to change the teaching program of the local Third Age University, inserting (between a cooking lecture and a gardening one) a dedicated Introduction to ICTs. User appreciation about the network is very high. Even if network management is carried out by University students and there is not a structured “customer service”, citizens participate actively to network control, being always the first to document network problems and sometimes providing suggestions. During last winter, when a huge snowfall covered the solar panels compromising power supply of half the network backbone, 10 volunteers offered to climb up the hills and put into service the infrastructure.
The preliminary results measured in the house that has been automated since the beginning of winter 2010-2011 are showing dramatic money savings, primarily due to the remote control of the sensing equipment. They exhibit a reduction of almost the 50% of the heating energy consumption and about 25% of garden watering. As a matter of fact, this early result could not be considered as representative of the functionality of the whole system, but it represents an interesting starting point that generates important perspectives for the continuation and implementation of the project on a larger scale.
Data regarding the following winter season (2011-2012) are more representative, as they are been applied to a larger number of houses. Unfortunately, they are affected by an unpredictable trigger: winter 2011-2012, which has not finished yet, has been the coldest of the last 100 years in Europe. Nevertheless, for the moment, we have still measured an average reduction of the 10% of the expenditures, between early November and late February. This datum should be analyzed and disaggregated, or, even more, compared to further data acquire in the next winter periods.
On October 28, 2011, the inhabitants have been involved in a photographic competition with subject related to their own home equipment installation. The competition has gathered a large number of participants (http://www.ixem.polito.it/research/Verrua_2010/Concorso_fotografico_2011...): one more demonstration of the passion generated by the project.