The smart neighbourhood is starting to take shape. People could soon be joining forces to leverage the power of smart security cameras and shared data, benefiting everyone in the area, not just each individual.
It’s Neighbourhood Watch 2.0, given an IoT overhaul, in the age of smartphone apps, cloud connectivity and personal monitoring tech. But how will it work?
Let’s rewind to 1964, to Queens, NYC. The murder of Kitty Genovese shocked the United States. It was claimed that 38 witnesses heard her cries for help, but none acted to help. From this incident, among others, the Neighbourhood Watch was born. It started a worldwide movement, with the UK following suit in 1982.
Neighbourhood Watch involved communities coming together to stay vigilant in their area. It wasn’t just watching out for suspicious characters in your area – co-ordinators are officially appointed as a channel of communication to the police, to notify them of crime trends or concerns from residents, and likewise, for law enforcement to communicate back to the community. In the UK, 3.8 million homes are covered by a neighbourhood watch scheme.
And there's a reason why the idea has endured. Evidence from a report collated by Nest – makers of the Nest Cam IQ Indoor and Outdoor cameras – shows that burglars thrive in isolated communities.
“Criminals also appear to be capitalising on how we often isolate ourselves from our neighbours, with a surprising 52% of offences now involving someone attempting to enter through the front door as opposed to the back,” the report states.
What’s more, the Nest report highlights that younger people are less likely to take security measures. 16-25 year olds are twice as likely to be broken into than over 75s – correlating perfectly with half as many taking security measures beyond a simple front door lock.
The smart neighbourhood
One company wants to drag Neighbourhood Watch into the digital age. Those outside North America might not have heard of Vivint, but the company is best known as a smart home service – evolving its home security business to become a provider for those looking to connect up their homes with the latest tech. It provides everything from thermostats to smart home cameras, with customers able to purchase outright or on payment contracts.
At CES 2018 Vivint unveiled Streety, an app for iPhone and Android, which it hopes will become the foundation of a smart neighbourhood. Streety is a completely free app, which provides residents with access to their neighbours' smart cameras, like an all-seeing eye for the streets around your house.
The rise of the outdoor camera
The idea for such an app stemmed from the popularity of the company’s outdoor cameras, which Clint Gordon-Carroll, VP of product management, cameras and video services at Vivint Smart Home says is set to explode in 2018.
“Vivint is selling more cameras than any other product – and it’s exterior cameras that have been wildly successful. It’s interesting how the outdoor camera has caught fire. Customers will, on average, buy four of those cameras – typically a smart doorbell and three exterior ones to cover their home.
And unsurprisingly it's something Nest also believes in:
“The benefits of smart cameras aren't limited to protecting the inside of homes. Outdoor security cameras are a significant deterrent for criminals and ultimately benefit the broader community, as their presence are a clear indicator that people in the neighbourhood are security-aware and keeping an eye out,” Lionel Guicherd-Callin from Nest Europe told The Ambient.
Captains of the Neighbourhood Watch
Yet buying smart cameras isn't enough, according to Vivint, which sees far more potential.
“As we started working with customers to work out what's behind the massive engagement with outdoor cameras, it’s the feeling of wanting to see what’s happening around my house. And a lot of folks who have these outdoor cameras act as the neighbourhood captain of their Neighbourhood Watch,” said Gordon-Carroll.
It seems the same forces are at play in the rise of smart neighbourhoods as they are in older Neighbourhood Watch areas – but this time residents are in control.
A lot of folks who have these outdoor cameras act as the neighbourhood captain of their Neighbourhood Watch
“We found that once something happens, it becomes the responsibility of the owner of the smart camera to find the footage, download it and share it with their neighbours,” said Gordon-Carrol.
The Streety service – which is set to launch in March in the US and Canada – will connect you to the cameras of your neighbours, if they offer access to the community. It’s completely free; there's no charge to join, no charge to add your camera, and no charge to access and download the footage from your neighbours. You don’t even need to own a camera to access other people's feeds.
When you download the app for the first time, you’ll see the cameras of those around your house – not just by Vivint but any camera makers that want to join the scheme. But you can’t just dive in right away. First you’ll need to do a “handshake” and be welcomed to the neighbourhood, then you can request access to cameras.
Building a community without tragedy
“What’s really interesting is that when something happens in a neighbourhood, like a missing child, lost pet or burglary, neighbours come together. It’s a sad part of human nature, that often we only get to know each other when something negative happens," said Gordon-Carrol.
“With that information we started thinking about whether we could network these cameras and make it seamless and easy, so you can become a community sooner.”
It’s interesting that Gordon-Carroll talks about the app helping you become a community sooner – not waiting for the galvanising effect of an emergency. Maybe connected tech can help to form that bridge with your neighbours.
Once accepted into your Streety neighbourhood you can request to view specific neighbours’ cameras. Again, there are levels of control here, depending on the owner. If fully approved by the owner, you can access on-demand, anytime streaming from their feed, which is useful if your kids play on that side of the street, for example. If you’re not afforded access, and there’s an incident that means you require footage from a neighbours’ camera, you can request that footage via the app.
However, Vivint doesn’t hold the footage, it simply requests it from its partner. That means the footage will rely on the host’s subscription plan, which varies between manufacturers, as well as sharing the camera.
Defining the neighbourhood
This does beg the question– what exactly counts as your neighbourhood?
Vivint has been quite bold – ignoring the nuances of individual streets, cul-de-sacs, estates and buildings, and indeed existing offline Neighbourhood Watch boundaries, by determining your neighbourhood as 300 metres around your home. That means that everyone’s Streety app will look slightly different, limiting the amount of cameras you can view. It’s perhaps not something that will please everyone, but the company felt it had to take a view on what was necessary. And it took some social science to come up with a number.
“We limited the size of the neighbourhood to be 300 metres around you,” said Gordon-Carroll.
“And for some people they love it, and some people want to make it as big as possible. We believe that people trust neighbours who are closest to them.”
“There’s some magic number between 300 and 500 metres within which people trust their neighbours. So inside the app you will see a map, with your home in the centre, and then people in the radius of your 300m neighbourhood. It also means I don’t need hundreds of people to fill out an area – just one person across the street will start making a difference.”
The future of smart neighborhoods
There are a few barriers to Vivint achieving its goal. It’s all very well creating the app – but if it’s only Vivint customers participating, there won’t be much draw for people to get involved. If it can get the likes of Nest joining in, then it could have real success. At launch, only Vivint cameras will be supported, although the company is gunning to get all the big names signed up.
Vivint says it’s working with the “biggest names” and will unveil a major partner in the 40 days after Streety goes live. It has a Works with Vivint-style program for its general smart home business – which is separate to Streety. Nest is already signed up as a thermostat partner, which bodes well for expanding its range of supported cameras within Streety. But it will need to get a decent gamut of outdoor security camera partners to make Streety a success.
"It really is altruistic. Our idea is that if you use Streety, when you go to the store to buy a camera for yourself, you’ll look for ones that work with Streety. You’ll look and you’ll say these ones work with Streety and these don’t – and if there’s a Vivint camera in there, that’s great," said Gordon-Carroll.
And what about the future of smart neighbourhoods?
Glimpses of how smart cities are evolving show how our neighbourhoods could operate in the future. Big city data combined with things like train and bus times could notify you when your child gets off the school bus.
In the far future our homes will be networked even more closely. Car companies are leading the way in how we can share power around our neighbourhoods, storing electricity in our cars and houses, distributing it on demand and even selling unneeded power back to the grid. But that’s far from now – the close reality is using smart home technology to bring together you and your neighbours around something no-one can argue with: making homes and families safer.