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TR: How can architects and planners use this real-time data?

CR: There are a number of possible applications. The most immediate is, if you’re able to monitor all the flows in the city, you can understand better the use of space. You can understand better new types of space use that are emerging because of technology. For instance, on the MIT campus, you see an increasing mobility of people thanks to Wi-Fi and laptops. If you’re able to understand this, you can design spaces that are better suited to the new needs of movement, to the dynamics of the space. This information can inform and help design.

I just came back from Zaragoza, Spain, where I’m involved in a project called the Digital Mile. The key question was: How can you design new kinds of spaces taking advantage of digital technology? There was a lot of thinking about “open source” – programmable public spaces that allow people to do new things when they’re there. In some of the spaces we created some “digital” water curtains that will be totally interactive and allow people to play with them. The overall idea is how to create a responsive public space.

TR: Playful water fountains sound perfectly harmless, but what about more sinister uses of location data?

CR: Is it a dream scenario or a nightmare scenario, being able to monitor all this activity? For a traffic engineer this is a dream scenario. If you are somebody interested in architecture, this is a dream scenario. If you are somebody interested in emergency relief, this is a dream scenario. Something like [the] Katrina [relief disaster] would never have happened if you had such a system as we had in Austria [cell-phone monitoring], where you could identify where people were after a disaster and actually go and help them.

If you think about privacy this would be a nightmare.

TR: How do you deal with privacy issues?

CR: A general approach that could solve most of the privacy issues is really to give the data back to the people who own it, the people who produce the data. They will be able to decide with whom to share it and when to share it.

On the MIT campus [when the wireless project is fully developed], it will be you deciding on a peer-to-peer basis when you want to share your location with your friends, everybody, or nobody. You will be able to change these all the time to control in a dynamic way when to share this information with whom. You could imagine something similar with cell phones, but you would need to design it – the system is a bit more complicated. We want to test it on the MIT campus and then expand it.

Big communication companies want to get ahold of the data because they think they could sell them in the future. This is the model that Google is using in San Francisco. They are giving a free Wi-Fi infrastructure to San Francisco, but they want to be able to develop new business models based on data about how people use the infrastructure.

On the one hand, you’ve got big corporations trying to do this. What we want to do is give back to the people the power of the data. Our work is about engaging the public in data management and the discussion about who should control the location data. Should they be available? How should they be managed? This is a new type of information we have about cities, and there should be a critical discussion about how we cope with it.

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Tagged: Communications

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