For my last course at UQ, I took Special Topics of Design Computing which was a great way of rounding up my two year program. The goal of this course was to explore connected realities using augmented reality or the Internet of Things (IoT). I decided to go with IoT because adding sensors to objects or ambients seemed an amazing idea and I wanted to have the chance to explore this kind of technology.

I wanted to examine how to enhance sense of belonging to a community through a connected shared garden (all this based on the Internet of Things technology). We all pitched our ideas to make teams and Ramya Ramani joined me for this project.

This project iterated a lot during the summer semester, so I will guide you a little bit around which changes were the most outstanding ones and why.

The Context

We started reading heaps of academic papers, reviewing published information on what other Community Gardens (CGs) around Australia were doing to enhance sense of belonging with their communities. We visited few CGs in Brisbane to get a bit more understanding of the dynamics they followed and motivations behind this activity. We joined the Facebook groups of some of these CGs to gain deeper understanding of their regular interactions. Once we were approved by the gatekeepers, we released a kickstarter survey with the CG members of these Facebook Groups to know more about this context.

Screenshots of Facebook Pages from Community Garden

Screenshot of the Community Gardens we approached during our study

The Idea

In this survey, we gain insights about their motivations and their frustrations when interacting with a CG, how engaged they were, what would they change to improve this environment and how would they envision technology helping them out in this context. After reviewing the challenges a CG presents (such as administrative, fundraising, networking), we decided to reduce our scope and focus only on how to promote human interaction between members through the garden itself to generate a sense of community, using the garden as the connecting element.

Concept of The Idea

General Idea: Connected Sensors in the Garden would generate a feedback
that would be visible for all the members in the community

We envisioned that in this setting all ranges of the population can interact freely having a common goal:

  • Kids could develop respect for nature through this dynamic and become more engaged with sustainability concepts since early ages.
  • Elderlies could feel they are part of a meaningful group and improve their quality of life.
  • Young adults that want to have a healthier lifestyle could learn gardening skills from the experienced members.

Neighbors can develop a sense of belonging to an area and contribute actively in improving the community gardens and the social cohesion in the neighborhood.

The Idea

In this stage, we decided we would have two specific settings:

In the Garden

We needed "something" that would help us collect inputs from the garden that were relevant for the members of the community. After brainstorming a little bit, we decided we would focus on tracking the plant's well-being (soil moisture, humidity and temperature).

  • Using a Photon by Particle, we started retrieving soil moisture, temperature and humidity data through sensors installed in what we called “The Garden Device” (In the Academic Paper, I refer it as the “Rooftop Device. You can find more information about this document in the Insights section).
  • This garden device would be located in a patch of soil with plants, and allowed community members to detect when the plant was receiving too much (or not enough water), aside of providing feedback of the humidity and temperature around this living element.

Calibration: First we needed to identify which values we were retrieving with each sensor and the ranges of each "stage" (eg. That meant defining ranges we would consider "dry soil" or "over watered soil"). We did this for all the sensors.

In the House

We decided we would integrate an element we could have at home, "something" that wasn't intrusive, was easy to operate and would allow us to visualise the information from the garden.

  • Each member of the Community Garden would have a “Home Device” located at their kitchen, living room or pretty much anywhere they wanted in the house. It had a Powerbank connected to it, but it can be plugged to any powerpoint.
  • This Home Device (Also powered by a Photon) had a Neopixel (addressable LEDs) that lighted in a different colour depending of the readings collected from the Garden Device.
  • Each colour would mean a different reading detected from the Garden. Green lights would usually mean a "Healthy" reading, while Red lights would be associated with extreme conditions. We provided a Starters Guide so people interacting with the device would know what each colour meant.

So let’s say, the Garden Device detected that the soil was really dry today so it triggered a red light in both the Garden Device and few seconds later in the Home Device. This way, the members of the community garden would then know that the plant needed water and would go to water the plant… (or so we thought).

Building the System (The Backend)

Aside of the calibration, we did several steps:

Garden Device

  • We were retrieving data almost every 5 minutes, so we would detect changes pretty quickly.
  • We generated webhooks to retrieve the values and stored in our database, collecting them by ID, type, reading, datetime, eventID and location.
  • Tested and debug for possible parser errors when pushing the data to our database

Onced we created the webhook and pushed the readings to the database
we were able to plan which queries we needed to perform to retrieve usable data

House Device

  • We created another webhook that was getting the values retured from the queries (so we could light up the Neopixel)
  • We were performing a query on our database, so if let’s say, the last 10 readings retrieved from today were in a range consider “dry soil” we would trigger a red light in the device. And so on with each sensor.
First Iteration
Social Patch Final Solution

First we needed to identify which values we were retrieving
with dry, wet and healthy soil so we could calibrate the sensors.

We took our devices to a Garden that we placed in a Lab at The University of Queensland. We invited elementary and high school teachers to interact with the system so we can get major insights about our devices.

We got great ideas (mostly related with making it for school environments and gamifying the experience) but there was one that gave us a new perspective:

“I would like to know when the other members of the garden are around, to join them”.

With this new idea, many hidden motivations arose:

“I am not very skilled in gardening, sometimes I want to ask others if I am doing it right”... “I enjoy gardening a bit more when I have company”... “Sometimes you just want to have a chat with people that have a common interest with you”... “It will help me feel less lonely”.

For most of the people, a community garden is directly linked with sharing (veggies, time, skills), so it became very evident that we needed to explore how to make this space more social through the technology.

We also were questioned on how the system would handle scenarios where the garden is self sufficient.

“What if all week the weather was great, the temperature was low and you had a bit of rain during the nights? People would stop going to check the CG because they can see in their Home Devices that the plants are ok and had been receiving enough water. The social factor will be gone. It would be a disaster”.
Second Iteration
Social Patch

Image of the extra sensor that we added to explore the human presence: the passive infrared

We added a Passive Infrared Sensor to detect when someone was around the community garden. A passive infrared just detects “events”, so everytime someone walked next to the Garden Device, we would count it as one event and we pushed that to the database.

Every time that an event was detected a pink light would be triggered for a couple of seconds, because the garden was being attended, or “loved”. The pink light would only be active while the person was in front of the Community Garden, as a way of representing that a human was in the garden.

We tested it again, allocating a Garden Device in of lab community Garden and then we gave the Home Device to some participants during a couple of hours. We explained to all participants what each colour meant. We asked them to do their regular things (study, do homework, work, having lunch) while they should try to monitor what was going on in the device. While the participants have their Home Devices, we would be triggering the pink light on purpose to monitor their reactions and capture their comments.


This is a little walkthrough of how the system would work once the passive infrared was placed:

The Devices
Garden Device and Home Device

The Garden Device monitors the well-being of the plant.

The neighbours at home can access that information through the Home Device.

The Home Device... and Jack
The Home Device... and Jack

While he is at home, Jack is happy to check how the plants are going. He places the device somewhere it is visible.

How are the plants today?
How are the plants today?

While Humidity and Temperature are on a "healthy" range, the Soil Moisture reads "Red", which means the soil is pretty dry.

We can also see a "Cyan" colour detected by the Solitude Sensor (Passive Infrared) which means no one has being around during the day.

The Readings
The Readings

The Garden Device only lights the Red Light (dry soil) in case someone is passing by, they would know which plant needs more water than others.

Engaging with the Garden
Engaging with the Garden through the Devices

Ed noticed the Red Light, so he heads to the garden and waters the plant. The presence of Ed is detected, so the Home Device lights a Pink light, which means "the plants have company".

If other neighbours were busy and cound not go to the garden straigh away, they would notice the Pink Light and feel better knowing someone has already watered the plants.

A Healthy Garden
A Healthy Garden

At the end of the day, the aim if the have a full "Green" light at the Home Device.

That would mean the water had a good temperature, humidity, enough water and caring by the members of the community.

Social Patch Final Solution

From Cardboard and Plastic to Laser cut MDF and Acrylic. Final prototype (New shell done by Pete Worthy)

The first insight collected was that very few of our participants detected when we triggered the pink light. They kept on doing their regular activities, so when the pink light was triggered they didn’t notice the change. Therefore very few of them reacted significantly. A very low number of participants decided to attend the plan when they saw the pink light being triggered.

“I only came to see who was around because I was curious of what triggered that pink light”.
“I didn’t notice the pink light because I was really busy doing my homework… but I wouldn’t want it to have a sound alert. A sound alert would make it very intrusive and I would actually end up annoyed”.

We found that a lot of users missed the fact that someone else was in the garden “at that specific time”. Our participants stated that if they were busy (watching TV, cooking, working online) it would be very hard for them to notice a change of light at all.

Once the participants were aware that a passive infrared was tracking their presence where they were at the community garden, they stated they felt a bit uncomfortable

“...But what exactly is this device monitoring about me? I would really want to know if I am going to be interacting with it for longer"
“It is hard to know if I am doing things right. I can't tell if I am watering the plants enough. If I am gonna be tracked at least I want to know if I am doing things wrong”.

Our participants stated that not having visible feedback of their activity while being "monitored" increased the sense of intrusiveness. This matches the findings of Erica Robles (2006) in previous research where the sense of monitoring and surveillance was evaluated.

There were several elements we detected we should keep on working, but unfortunately the timeframe was limited and this is as far as the project ended up.

If you wish to know more about the findings of this research, you can find the full article at the ACM Digital Library.

Special thanks for Peter Worthy, Ben Matthews, Stephen Viller and Jason Weigel for all the support given during this project.