Freedom of Information

07.26.13

How Big Data Is Entering Every Corner of Our Lives

As the NSA scandal shows, data is being collected on every aspect of our lives. This can be used to improve our experience, particularly in cities, or it can be a way to strip us of our privacy. Leo Hollis, the author of Cities Are Good for You, warns us of the good and the bad.

This month, Microsoft made the headlines for two very different reasons. It was revealed that the company had allowed the National Security Agency access to the entire cache of users’ Outlook, Hotmail, and skydive data. Earlier, the software giant announced that it was getting into the “Smart City” business, launching a new project, CityNext, that promises to deliver the latest software and technology to grapple with the challenges of urban life. These two news stories are a reminder of how the major software companies are entering into every corner of our lives, and why we might need to be forewarned about the possible consequences.

For many urban thinkers the city has become a computer; the dense collection of bodies, buildings, wires, cables, and waste has been transformed into an “Internet of things.” Buildings form the hardware, while all the life between buildings constitutes the ever-changing software flow. In this view the metropolis is the most powerful information network ever created, a big data set that contains the sum of urban life. Where once the city was powered by steam or electricity, things now run on data. The same thinkers announce with certainty that this notion of the smart city will influence the way the metropolis is transformed over the next decades, just as the railway influenced the 19th century and the car the postwar era.

The smartphone in your pocket connects you to the city in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago. GPS makes it impossible to be lost anymore; there are apps that can provide data at any moment, connecting you to the urban mainframe. As well as transforming the city into a spatial network, there are now even Apps that can short-circuit this connexity, making sure that you don’t bump into people you are trying to avoid. The smartphone collapses the traditional boundaries of the city: Starbucks is now the new Wi-Fi factory. Data sets of Instagram usage show how differently tourist and locals use their phone cameras, creating a ghost map of the metropolis. As announced in The New York Times, stores now track customers as they meander through the shop floor. Google Earth is already influencing the way people design cities: the Palmyra Islands in Dubai, designed to look like a splayed palm reaching into the Gulf waters, is meant to be seen from the air. In Greece, the government is using Google Earth to see who can afford a swimming pool in their back yard, and then matching that against tax records.

In most cities, this information makes our comfortable lives easier, and in other parts of the world it has saved lives. In Africa, where there are few Internet connections and even fewer ATMs, mobile banking like the Kenyan M-Pesa is changing lives. When I visited the Mumbai slums, Dharavi, where nearly a million people live in precarious conditions, the one brand name that was found everywhere was Vodaphone, and mobile aerials scaled above the most unlikely dwellings, providing super fast service. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake in January 2010, the Ushahidi mapping website was able to remotely monitor the damage and to pinpoint places of the most need using real-time mobile reporting and GPS. At the same time OpenStreetMap, using satellite images, was crowdsourcing a new street map for the city through the debris, giving aid workers on the ground accurate location data.

Around the world new cities are being built through this idea of quantitative urbanism. Technology is embedded within the hardware of the city to gather data, monitoring and updating the city in real time. This information can be processed and then fed back into the city, creating a latticed network of feedback loops. Thus in Songdo, a new city in Korea, built on reclaimed land outside Incheon airport, and designed by Gale International of Manhattan, powered by u.Life Solutions software, cameras will report the flow of pedestrians, and pavement lights will lighten or dim accordingly; congestion on the road will be monitored by registration plate software; there will be real-time meteorological forecasts so that the power grid can be prepared in advance of surges; water, waste, and energy use will be measured and efficiencies found at all stages.

The smart city, a highly sensitized, complex network of feedback loops, is the philosopher’s stone for the sustainable city. The continual monitoring of resources, the search for reduction in waste and energy usage is based on the successful gathering of boundless data. Smart buildings turn off their own lights, monitor temperature, know how to offset electricity use to off-peak times of the day, calculate how often workers move around the office space. In China, whole eco-cities are being planned. For example, in 2012 the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city was opened with great fanfare as a center for innovation. It was so well designed that, according to one report “the residents will not be expected to make any particular effort to be green.”

The task becomes more complicated when attempting to retrofit existing cities and converting the established industrial centers in smart cities. Every week we see announcements from city halls around the world launching digital strategies with the promise of high-speed connections, dragging their city into the 21st century, making it part of the “creative economy,” attracting investors, jobs, and innovation. Often these announcements come with newly inked partnerships with IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Phillips, and with the consultation of McKinsey & Company or Booz Allen Hamilton. It is clear that a mayor who is not putting all their eggs in “smart” is too dumb to be elected.

But implementing such schemes is harder than many expect; smart and big data are not the elixirs often promised and are hard to implement. In 2009 Amsterdam launched its smart-city scheme, releasing an interim report earlier this year that, among the cheerleading, revealed findings that, when talking to people in the newly retrofitted neighborhoods, it made sense not to get too technical when describing what was going on outside their front door. In Boston, there have been complaints about privacy over the use of registration-plate-recognition software.

The two Microsoft news stories indicate some of the moral questions raised by Quantitative Urbanism: smart might be advertised as a tool to set us free, but it might also be a cage from which it is impossible to escape. The same technology that is used to monitor our shopping habits can also be used to track our every move. Since the age of Frederick Taylor’s theories of scientific management, it has been clear that to be monitored was to be managed. Is that the kind of city we really want to live in? The level of securitization surveillance hardware installed in London during the 2012 Olympics was astonishing, a shop front for the whole security industry. In Rio de Janeiro, in advance of the 2014 World Cup, the government has come together with IBM to create a central surveillance hub, a “brain stem” for the ever-watchful city. Most of these schemes are happening without engagement with the very people affected—us. The recent riots in Brazil were a dramatic reminder that people place cheap bus fares above smart infrastructure as a living priority.

The recent riots in Brazil were a dramatic reminder that people place cheap bus fares above smart infrastructure as a living priority.

These top-down schemes need city-size investment, and the citizen does not need to worry about the consequences, we are told. But is this true? Can one really create an environmentally sustainable city without changing the behavior of its citizens? Many of these schemes offer connections but show very little interest in feedback, as the response in Amsterdam revealed. The new Microsoft CityNext project announces that it will put people first. At a recent conference, Assaf Biderman, the associate director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT announced that the smart city will use technology to make it more “human.”

However, the same technology offers alternatives to the top-down projects heralded above. Perhaps the most radical gesture is also the cheapest, and potentially signposts a very interesting change in the relationship between city hall and the street. Municipal governments have been gathering data for decades, but who owns this information? In 2009 Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened the New York City Open Data archive that made copious amounts of city data public. The scheme has been followed by cities around the world.

The datastore is not just a mechanism for transparency. While it is important that the city government prove itself to be open and accountable, establishing a sense of trust between the city and city hall, the variety of information being offered to general scrutiny has a far more valuable potential in engaging the active citizen. Once data is made available, city hall loses control on how that information is used and by whom: hackers, activists, website designers, coders, or app entrepreneurs. For the last four years Bloomberg has also run the BigApps awards that celebrate the many different ways the data is used. It can be utilized to start a political campaign or launch a new business. This relinquishing of information control by traditional government powers to whoever has a broadband connection and a special interest is perhaps the start of the real intelligent city.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly named the designer of Songdo.