NYC Considers Codifying Startup's Temperature-Monitoring Sensor

The bill would require any landlord of a building with more than three units to install temperature sensors in living rooms to monitor whether minimum temperature requirements during winter are met.

New York City’s long-standing civic tech innovation competition, BigApps, recently opened to 2017 applicants, and as the next group begins to take shape, the New York City Council is considering a bill that would codify technology developed by a past winner.

That technology is a sensor from a nonprofit startup called Heat Seek, and it monitors whether landlords meet minimum temperature requirements in tenants’ apartments during winter. The bill would require any proprietor of a building with more than three units to install temperature sensors in living rooms, where they would then generate data sent to tenants, property owners, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, New York’s housing agency. The bill, sponsored by Councilman Ritchie Torres in partnership with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, was introduced on Dec. 15 and referred to the council’s committee on housing and buildings, where it now remains.

Whether the bill passes or not, Heat Seek is poised to continue working to ensure all renters in New York City get the warm environments their landlords are required to provide. This ongoing work is one of many projects born out of Big Apps, which grew from an effort to incentivize software developers and the public to get involved with open data in 2011, into one of the civic tech world’s foremost innovation initiatives, one increasingly focused on improving life for all New Yorkers, said Kate Daly, a senior vice president with the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

“Narrowing the focus has been very successful because it allows people to come together in a much more targeted away,” said Daly.

This year, the focus is on creating apps that solve challenges for youth, seniors and immigrants.

The concept behind BigApps is simple. After being selected through an application process, participants complete workshops based around five major phases of product development — define, discover, design, test and refine — and they receive guidance and mentorship from previous BigApps winners throughout. Afterward, winners receive cash prizes, promotion, marketing, acceptance into Civic Hall Labs’ civic accelerator program, and a chance for their work to be piloted on hundreds of LinkNYC kiosks throughout the entire city.

Noelle Francois, executive director of Heat Seek, said BigApps has changed a great deal since her company participated. The year Heat Seek won, the company saw a surge of support and attention immediately after Big Apps, but once it ended, that largely dropped off. She said the competition has changed that this year, and plans are in place to sustain support for winning BigApps concepts.

While Heat Seek continues to work toward its goals of improving renting conditions — they’re currently working to do more than collect data, showing residents how to use the info that their sensors collect in order to spark actual change — the company plans to serve as a mentor to a fresh BigApps team. Francois said the narrowed focus, the emphasis on sustained support and other improvements the competition has made will likely have great results.

“I have no doubt we’re going to end up with incredible, amazing projects from BigApps this year,” said Francois.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine