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When people wander around the MIT campus with a Wi-Fi-enabled cell phone or laptop, they’re also participating in a real-time mapping project. Carlo Ratti, a practicing architect with a firm in Torino, Italy, runs the SENSEable City Laboratory in the university’s department of urban studies and planning. He can reveal patterns of activity on the MIT wireless network, which blankets almost the entire campus, by measuring activity on wireless access points.

Similarly, in collaboration with European telecom companies that allowed him access to information about traffic on cell-phone towers, Ratti has monitored cell-phone users in Milan and Graz, Austria, mapping how people move through cities over the course of a day.

Ratti’s research, which uses location data to make real-time maps of how people move through space, gives insight into where people like to work and how traffic flows through the city – information that could help architects and city administration design better digital spaces.

As huge corporations such as Microsoft and Google move into real-time mapping and municipal Wi-Fi projects (see “Microsoft’s Plan to Map the World in Real Time” and “Killer Maps”), though, Ratti is also worried about issues of privacy. He says city planners, telecoms, and private companies need to work together to design digital infrastructures that will protect individuals’ privacy rights, by giving them control over the data. For example, someone might want to know that a friend is in a particular café, using a real-time map, so they can head there – but he or she might not want the boss to know where they are.

Ratti spoke with Technology Review about his Wi-Fi and cell-phone monitoring projects and about collaborating with telecoms and city administrators.

Technology Review: How can people use real-time location data?

Carlo Ratti: This information becomes very interesting because it can create a feedback loop. When you give this information to the community, the community can change its behavior.

Imagine you have a real-time situation of movement of traffic in the city. If everybody knew about that they could optimize their movement through the city based on overall conditions. For example, we’ve been invited to do a project for the Venice Biennale, probably the largest exhibition on architecture and urban studies in the world. It happens every other year in Venice, and this year it will be about cities. Our project is called Rome in Real-Time. We will be trying to overlay on the city map all the real-time information we can get today, starting from cell-phone information, but also including the position of buses and taxis, and overlay all of them on the map. This will be displayed at the Biennale in September and on an urban-size projection screen in Rome.

TR: The idea behind it is to see where, for example, your bus is and to monitor traffic?

CR: That’s the basics, but what is more interesting, when you see all the dynamics of the city in real time, is not only to optimize your trip but also to really get the pulse of the city – you can see where people are, where you can go and get a drink. Maybe you can also see tourists and the concentration of different nationalities in the city. You might imagine Italians aiming to go to the parts of town with the highest concentration of Scandinavian tourists. This project is a partnership with Italy’s main telephone operator, Telecom Italia.

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