A herd of eager parents on a tour of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus snap photos as Anthony Vanky excitedly looks on. Vanky, an architect and researcher at MIT’s Senseable Cities Laboratory, is standing on this particularly packed stretch of sidewalk to illustrate a point.
“If you look at this intersection, where are all the places that data is being created?” Vanky asks, adjusting his stylish white-frame glasses and pointing towards the tour group. “They’re getting GPS locations. They’re getting cell phone activity. They’re taking photos. You can actually mine that.” The Senseable Cities Laboratory (SCL) is a group of architects, urban planners, technologists, and ethnographers who have banded together to equip and study cities with sophisticated digital sensors.
If that sounds like science fiction, it’s not. You’re probably equipped with more than one sensor right now. Smart phones, tablet computers, electronic toll passes on cars, or public transportation cards all provide opportunities for the lab’s researchers (and city administrators) to examine urban residents in real time.
Public perception of massive data collection is, at the moment, inextricably linked with government surveillance scandals. “Right now, the information is in the hands of the few: the MIT nerds, the people in government, and big companies,” Vanky says. Citizens going about their daily routine might not even realize that their data is being collected. Pedestrians pressing a button to request a green light rarely think of themselves as data points. They probably also wouldn’t think of that button press as confidential. Researchers at the lab believe this as that kind of large-scale anonymized data becomes more available to the public—and its benefits made more transparent—we will start to see fewer concerns and more useful innovations.
A City Is Not a City
Most of the world’s storied cities consciously preserve a sense of the historic. Wander through lower Manhattan and you might feel transported to the Gilded Age. A stroll along the Seine is a journey to the Belle Époque. Turn a corner in London and you’re back in the British Empire.
But despite the romantic sense that you’re walking down the same streets that have been used for centuries, you’re not. In fact, in many ways, the cities we live in today are barely cities at all.
According to Carlo Ratti, the director of the Senseable Cities Laboratory, walking through a city today is more like “taking a stroll through a giant, ever-changing computer in open air”. Data is being processed and transmitted millions of times per second. Sensors under the pavement detect the speed and location of cars. The timing of red lights is optimized by a central computer system. Public transportation is tracked via GPS. This intelligent, digital infrastructure is what makes a “senseable” city.In many ways, Ratti says, the transformation of today’s cities is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One auto racing. Before that point, the competition was a matter of which driver was the most skilled and who had the fastest car. “But everything changed with the blossoming of telemetry technology.”
As high-speed wireless data transmission and GPS monitoring became viable tools, Formula One racing suddenly became much more data-driven. “The traditional racecar was transformed into a computer with wheels.” The cars were blanketed in sensors providing real-time updates to a team of engineers, who were then able to respond to the split-second conditions of the race.
Ratti sees that same transformation happening to today’s cities. It’s his goal to explore how transparent data can steer a city in the right direction.
Anthony Vanky gestures at an oncoming bus. “Take Boston, for example. The reason why we have real-time bus information is because the city didn’t have the money or the resources to make an app on their own.”
What Boston’s public transit officials did have was the kind of “senseable” data that Vanky and his colleagues are so fascinated by. Boston’s MBTA opened up the information from buses’ onboard GPS trackers to the public and encouraged developers to create low-cost apps. Almost immediately, high-quality free and low-cost apps hit the marketplace and were widely adopted by the bus-riding public. “You see people making cool countdown clocks in coffee shops so they can see when the next bus is coming.”
Vanky is excited by the implications for larger-scale change. Bus trackers “are all small and cute, but just think: that’s one data set, in isolation, that’s changing the way people are buying coffee or how people are waiting.” On the particular stretch of Massachusetts Avenue where Vanky happens to be standing, he counts at least five significant data sets. Sensors and cell phones can report on everything from weather patterns, vehicle speed, and road conditions to Twitter and Facebook updates from passengers.
The intersection of those multiple data sets is where the SCL’s work becomes unique. Dissatisfied with simply knowing the location of public buses or traffic congestion, the lab’s researchers wanted to get deeper into the emotional components of city driving. That led to a partnership with carmaker Audi and the development of the Road Frustration Index.
Using sweat meters, cameras, and a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor, project leader Kael Greco developed a system for quantitatively measuring the frustration of an urban commute. During an initial data collection drive, Greco was actually sideswiped by a reckless driver in downtown Boston, an event that registered on the index as less stressful only than skydiving.
The researchers hope to compare road frustration across 30 different cities in the US and provide concrete data on the most stressful roads and intersections within each. Like many of the lab’s projects, the goal is experimentation and creation of new knowledge rather than specific policy recommendations, but it’s easy to imagine how this data could be applied to mapping software. Google Maps already offers options like “avoid tolls”; perhaps one day drivers will be able to also select “avoid frustration”.
The Senseable Cities Lab itself stands visually apart from the surrounding offices in MIT’s Building 9. It’s an L-shaped corridor painted black with white trim and covered in pictures and descriptions of the lab’s projects. Researchers in the lab sometimes jokingly describe this wall as the lab’s holy site, the “Senseable Kaaba”.
The highlighted projects include many that focus on new ways to generate data about urban residents. SCL researchers are excited about empowering everyday citizens by providing them with more transparent access to the data that the computer they live inside of produces. But they’re also hoping that more access will generate more interest in creating data in a kind of virtuous cycle.
One of the lab’s most popular projects is the Copenhagen Wheel.
The concept is essentially to take all the elements of an electric vehicle and place them solely into the wheel of a bicycle. The wheel would give an electric assist to the rider when needed and capture energy during braking. More interestingly though, the Copenhagen Wheel is also a “collector”. Data on traffic conditions would be shared directly with the rider, while other information, such as the location of potholes and data on air pollution, would be sent to the city, enabling authorities to react to issues on the ground in real time.
While not yet launched commercially, the Copenhagen Wheel has received a fair amount of criticism for what many see as a high price tag of USD 600, added weight, and allure for bike thieves. However, this type of product should appeal to cycling activists or government officials hungry for more on-the-ground information.
Trash Track offers another option, this time collecting data from remote sensors. Ratti and his colleagues asked residents of Seattle and New York City to tag individual pieces of refuse with cheap location trackers and then watch the garbage move across the country. The experiment uncovered surprising revelations about the so-called “removal chain”. Ratti wrote that the trash tags were a new way to create data itself. “Those 3,000 sensors showed us something shocking about how Seattle gets rid of its garbage.” Rather than the simple and short journey most residents expected, individual pieces of trash were scattered across the country, revealing a sprawling, complex waste removal network.
One particular printer cartridge travelled 3,210 miles from Seattle to Tennessee via road, rail, and air freight. In their final report, the researchers wrote that most volunteers felt shocked when they discovered the distances trash was travelling. Many residents had detailed knowledge about where their products came from, “but we hardly think about the transportation energy that goes into things even after we toss them out. Out of sight is no longer out of mind.” The researchers believe that, if implemented on a larger scale, making the paths trash travels viewable would promote more conscious environmental practices.
As more objects are equipped with trackers, that type of information may very well become widespread. Ratti calls this the “Internet of Things—the idea that anything and everything, from cargo ships to soup spoons, could be connected using new technologies like RFID tagging”. He sees that new level of connectivity as the future’s “building block for innovation”. This is information sourced by regular people going through their daily routines and interacting with mundane objects, but it provides an opportunity for built-in feedback loops that can continuously improve how we use those products.
A New Conversation
With such a diversity of projects at any given time (Vanky estimated 15 projects run concurrently), one might wonder how the lab chooses what to investigate. “For us, the question comes first,” says Vanky. “Then you can think about all the interesting things you can do, start big, and then think about how the data may support it. Maybe other questions come up, simpler questions.”
Ratti described the process in somewhat grander terms, speaking of sparking a conversation among “all of the interrelated forces of the city” about our collective metropolitan future. Like cities themselves, the Senseable Cities Laboratory is working at the overlap of the worlds of business, politics, and academia. One of the lab’s newest and most ambitious projects, a partnership with telecommunications giant Ericsson, aims to track the collective patterns of voice, data, and text usage of cities on a collective scale. The lab has created a hypnotizing visualization, equal parts art and science, which reflects what they call “the signature of humanity”—a kind of digital pulse unique to each city.
According to the lab, preliminary results suggest that each city’s global signature is based on its cultural background, but all major cities share specific patterns. It’s the lab’s mission in microcosm, a search to understand how the pulses of cities around the world interact.