Heat Seek Keeps the Heat On This Winter With Data, Tech & Transparency

Jan 27, 2017   |   MSNY Staff

During New York City’s annual Big Apps competition in 2014, I learned about a new civic tech solution called Heat Seek, and I’ve been a supporter ever since. I’m currently a proud member of the Board of Directors of this tech-powered non-profit that is making a real impact by using an internet of things approach to empower tenants, landlords, community organizations, and the justice system with accurate data that can make a dent in our city’s heating crisis. For many New Yorkers, heat equals health, education, and opportunity. Heat Seek uses technology to defend people’s rights to those things. Thanks to Co-Founder and CEO Noelle Francois for sitting down with us to tell the Heat Seek story.
John Paul Farmer

downloadIt’s cold in your apartment, but the heat and hot water are regulated by your landlord. The wall thermostat reads 57 degrees Fahrenheit for three days — well below the city’s mandate. When the landlord dodges your calls, you file a complaint with the city’s 311 service. Immediately before inspection, the landlord raises the heat, only to lower it back once the city’s inspector leaves. Your options are limited: continue to freeze, find a new apartment, or take action. In court, the proof you provide is your word and handwritten heat log with temperatures and timestamps you’ve recorded yourself. Oftentimes, it’s not enough to get the landlord to comply.

This is the reality for many New Yorkers. Every year, thousands of renters spend the winter in a frigid apartment, Heat Seek Executive Director Noelle Francois told Microsoft New York. Heat Seek aims to combat this struggle. Their mission is to make the city a safer, warmer place to live for all New Yorkers. The nonprofit uses tech to empower tenants, providing unbiased evidence (data) to verify heating code abuse claims in court.

Last winter, the city received more than 200,000 heat-related complaints from 37,000 different buildings, most of which were in lower-income neighborhoods throughout Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn.

“What we find is that for the specific subset of tenants we work with most closely, they’re being harassed — they don’t just have inept landlords,“ Francois said.

Heat Seek installs temperature sensors in these apartment complexes, where tenants have not been able to resolve heating problems through traditional channels. The sensors, consisting of a printed circuit board, a thermistor, a Raspberry Pi, and a wireless modem, talk to each other through a mesh network. Once an hour, they collect and transmit ambient temperature data to Heat Seek’s servers. Tenants and their lawyers can access this data on a web app. This data, integrated with public 311 heating complaint information, illustrates what Heat Seek has determined is a heating crisis in New York City.

The sensors come at no cost to the tenants participating in Heat Seek’s program, and can function without Wi-Fi in the homes of elderly or lower-income tenants — those who need the data the most.

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Credit: Heat Seek

“The idea was always that we want to be able to serve the most vulnerable tenants in the city who don’t have the means or the resources to solve this problem on their own. We didn’t want cost to be a barrier,” Francois said.

Heat Seek sensors are currently installed in about a dozen buildings, with an expectation to expand to 25 buildings by the end of the season.

“We intentionally scaled down from last year because one of the big things we found last year was that providing tenants with data is great, but it’s not enough, especially if tenants don’t have a lawyer and don’t know what to do with that data,” Francois told MSNY.

Heat Seek has begun working hand-in-hand with tenant organizers, public interest attorneys, and city officials at the Housing Preservation & Development department. Together, they look at the city’s open data — complaints, violations, court cases, change in rent-stabilized units, and other indicators that demonstrate a building might benefit from Heat Seek’s sensors. Heat sensor data is shared with the city, so inspectors can drop by unannounced to confirm a pattern in the data.

“We’re hoping that this year, with a more targeted approach, we’re able to see a higher percentage of the buildings where we have sensors actually resolve their issues,” Francois said.

They’ve already seen success. At 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brownsville, sensors were installed in partnership with the Legal Aid Society in October. Nearly a quarter of the time, the temperature hovered around 60 degrees, in violation with NYC Housing Code. In December, Heat Seek held a press conference in front of the building, and Legal Aid Society filed a case against the landlord. Before the case saw a trial, a day after the press conference, the heat came on almost 10 degrees warmer.

before-and-after-graph
A graph of the temperature inside apartments at 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brownsville, before and after Legal Aid Services took action using Heat Seek’s data. Credit: Heat Seek

“After we see more of that impact, then it’s about scaling. There’s no point in scaling for scaling sake,” Francois said of the company’s plans to expand.

Looking ahead, Heat Seek plans to focus on some of the neighborhoods that are up for rezoning as part of the mayor’s housing plans.

“We know that during rezoning and after rezoning, the cost of living in those neighborhoods goes up. Landlords can start to charge more for rent, making it difficult for a lot of the tenants. We want to at least eliminate this one harassment tactic, of refusing to heat the apartments, that’s really effective in driving tenants out,” she said.

They aim to help landlords, too, to heat their buildings more effectively while reducing costs.

“We’re trying to be a non-biased third party,” Tristan Siegel, a coder with Heat Seek since the beginning, told the New York Times. “Even though we did start with tenants in mind, we’re really trying to bridge that gap.”

Ms. Francois credited the NYCBigApps competition in helping them move from an idea to a civic tech success, as well as support from Civic Hall, Beespace, and Robinhood Labs, to name a few.

“We’re proud to be a part of the civic tech, tech for the public good, community. We’re a nonprofit, simply driven to make tech that serves the needs of the partners we work with and the tenants we work with,” she said. “That impacts every aspect of what we do, right down to the design of the sensors.”

Heat Seek works most closely with:
The Legal Aid Society
Legal Services NYC
Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A
Flatbush Tenant Coalition
St. Nick’s Alliance
– Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams
– Council Member Ben Kallos
– Council Member Ritchie Torres
Housing Preservation & Development
CASA
Make the Road

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