Changing Environments raises $1 million to connect municipalities, citizens, and the Internet

(From left to right) Nan Zhao, Jutta Friedrichs, FKA's Chris Lynch, and Sandra Richter.
(From left to right) Nan Zhao, Jutta Friedrichs, FKA's Chris Lynch, and Sandra Richter.

Changing Environments, a Cambridge-based Internet of Things startup, is trying to improve the way communities and its citizens interact. The company has created a network for civic-minded app developers and organizations to connect with mobile phone users through sensor-connected “urban appliances.”

Last week, the company announced that it has raised $1 million in funding from FKA, the Where Fund, and the MIT Media Lab-connected E14 Fund. The company is focused on creating a series of hackathons that promote civic innovation and building public projects that leverage data-recording sensors to improve the relationship between citizens and municipalities.

Changing Environments is best known for its Soofa “smart benches” that were piloted at various parks throughout the city last year. The benches, powered by solar energy, serve as Internet hot spots and mobile device charging stations, and are also an attractive piece of public design. As co-founder Sandra Richter explained, “What we noticed is that for one of the first times, we had an Internet of Things project in the public realm that people could interact with.”

As part of the Soofa project, the company crowdsourced where people thought the best location for the benches would be. Richter said the response was overwhelming, with both the public and the governments of Cambridge and Boston reaching out to take part in the project. “It ended up creating this interesting mix of people and somehow brought the citizens and cities closer together.”

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Sandra Richter, co-founder and CEO of Soofa, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. (Via Soofa)

“What we did was take the Internet which we usually consume in our homes and on our phones, and moved more into the real world,” Richter explained.

While it is currently updating the benches with sensors to track usage and other data, Changing Environments is moving forward with a series of hackathons that aim to bring together members of the Boston tech and innovation community and students and researchers connected with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the MIT Media Lab, Boston University, and other institutions. The hackathons will be focused on civic innovation, and will use public data to improve the health, security, and even location-based games.

Richter said Boston and Cambridge are interested in seeing what citizens can do with their own data. “We are going to be taking all the open data that accessible and making it more useful to the public,” she said.

“Changing Environments has created a big data software platform for public Internet of Things devices,” said FKA partner Chris Lynch. “They are aggregating processing points for big data that can be used by cities, but could also have some potential commercial benefits.”

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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