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This smart thermostat wants to turn up the heat on slumlords

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Can Heat Seek keep vulnerable tenants warm through the winter?

In New York, keeping the heat on can be a battle. Buildings are required to keep temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 55 at night, but between faulty boilers and often hostile landlords looking to save on fuel, that doesn't always happen. The result is that many tenants are left in the cold. This winter the city got more than 200,000 reports of heating violations — sometimes more than 5,000 in a single day — but just a fraction of those made it through the city's courts. Gathering evidence of the violations is difficult, and pushing a complaint through can take months, having little effect until long after the weather changes. As a result, many tenants have no option but to wait the winter out.

A new project called Heat Seek NYC wants to change that. Think of it as a more civic-minded version of the Nest, a way to track the city's worst heating violations and do something about them. "Our technology is giving the legal system power to make these codes actually mean something," says founder William Jeffries (who, full disclosure, is also Verge reporter Adrianne Jeffries' brother). The project wants to put his networked thermometer in 1,000 of the city's coldest apartments this winter, and he's raising money on Kickstarter to build the necessary sensor hardware. If the project succeeds, it could open up a new way for the city to fight slumlords and protect tenants.

"Our technology is giving the legal system power to make these codes actually mean something."

As it stands now, the biggest problem for tenants is gathering enough evidence. You need a city inspector to properly document the low temperatures, but the inspectors are stretched thin, appearing in a 36-hour window that often comes while tenants are at work. If the inspector comes on a warm day, the whole process has to start again. "If you can document a violation every day of the week, it's an open and shut case," says Stephanie Rudolph, a lawyer with the Urban Justice Center, who's consulting with Heatseek. "It's just hard to document." Heatseek would sidestep the inspectors by measuring temperatures every day, producing a continuous record that could be presented in court.

"It's just hard to document."

To create that record, Heat Seek uses a network of temperature sensors built using famously versatile Twine hardware. The team didn't want to rely on tenants having Wi-Fi, so they built the sensors as a mesh network around an Ethernet-connected base that sends the data back to Heat Seek HQ. If a building starts skimping on heat, lawyers like Rudolph can set up sensors in every apartment around a single base connection. Once the system is set up, readings are available through Heat Seek's web app, letting lawyers check in on the evidence in real time. All tenants have to do is set up the sensor.

But first, Heat Seek will have to convince the courts to come along for the ride. The team is hoping the temperature feed will eventually be directly admissible in court, but Jeffries may have to testify a few times before that happens. He'll have to convince judges that the feed can't be tampered with, and that tenants aren't simply sticking the sensors in the fridge. After the judges are convinced, Heat Seek will get to work on the inspectors themselves. "Ideally, I think the city should just be using these," says Rudolph. "There's no reason not to use technology when it's this simple." After that, Heat Seek wants to use the same tactics in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, all of which have similar heating codes and face similar problems.

There are broader uses too — the team has thought about using the same tech to monitor conditions in hospital rooms or greenhouses — but for now the team is focused on helping New Yorkers make it through the winter. When I mention Nest, which recently sold for $4.5 billion, Jeffries was quick to set Heat Seek apart. "Nest is for the big guy, for someone who has a lot of money to throw around," he said. "We're trying to make something that's going to help people who actually need it."