Sensors and Citizens: Finding Balance in the New Urban Reality

As urban sensor systems become more advanced, an appreciation for human values must drive their design.

You have a front row seat. Unfortunately it is the driver’s seat of your family car and a multi-vehicle accident just unfolded before your eyes. People are almost certainly injured. Traffic is backing up in all directions. As you take out your smartphone to report an emergency, you notice that first responders are already on the scene. Small aerial drones have honed in on your location and incident information is being streamed to a control center. Traffic management and dashboard navigation systems across the city have been updated and rerouting has begun. Have the victim’s medical records been accessed using their personal digital identifiers?

You’re not in a Hollywood production. You’re participating in an experience from the very near future – one in which information collection is autonomous and mobile, and the infrastructure itself is programmable in real-time.

Most of us have already experienced transformative digital encounters with our world: while viewing a neighborhood from our childhood using an online model of the earth; while trashing our glovebox map in favor of a dashboard computer voice; or while being informed of a friend’s current location and activity by our smartphone.

These moments of wonder have been half a century or more in the making. They combine technologies that precisely map, measure, and model the world around us. Aerial photogrammetry, geographic information systems, satellite remote sensing, and global positioning are just a few of the landmark breakthroughs.

Contemporary developments are also leaving observers awestruck. Mobile laser scanning and photogrammetric image matching create high-fidelity 3D models using data collected from moving platforms. Autonomous aerial vehicles navigate by satellite and self-driving cars cruise down public highways. And the much-discussed Internet of things is transforming formerly dumb objects into smart object networks that not only tell us how they are performing, but increasingly respond to changing conditions or remote instructions.

The combination of mobile platforms, advanced sensors, and information networks—together with systems for data fusion, 3D modelling, computer vision, and machine learning—are transforming the way we understand and interact with our world. These capabilities cumulate in intelligent city models that include detailed infrastructure information, both above and below ground, indoors and out. Combined with information on pollution, weather, transportation, property data, green infrastructure, demographics, crime patterns, or emergency response models, future cities start to become as immersive in silico as they are in reality. But first, the fusion all of this data represents an epic big data challenge.

Big players like IBM and Cisco are rising to the occasion, investing in smart city technology that helps make the data avalanche into something useful and productive. With estimates that 75% of the world’s population will reside in urban centers within 40 years, cities are a safe bet as a market of the future. Yet central control alone is unlikely to address the complex challenges of managing urban systems. Fortunately a large mobile sensor network is already deployed – in the pockets of citizens.

The smartphone itself is a prevalent and revolutionary mobile sensor that has empowered average citizens to participate in everything from the prosaic, such as reporting graffiti or potholes, to the profound, such as microfinance or direct democracy. Frequently these efforts exist outside the central frameworks put in place by governments, often because the spirit and drive to create social change comes from a very different place than official public policy.

These elements make for an interesting interplay. Grassroots access to participatory, open, and accessible crowdsourced spatial information can be in tension, or in concert, with control systems orchestrated by governments or corporate entities. For bureaucracies, the proposition of adopting crowdsourced data can be vexing. Nonetheless, the value of doing so seems certain to outweigh associated apprehensions. Integrating crowdsourced data together with centrally managed sensor networks makes sense, not only because of the additional richness of the data it offers, but because of the powerful new forms of participatory citizenship it facilitates.

Effectively designing the interaction between these worlds not only improves civic management systems, it also changes the way we think about affecting social change as citizens. Given this reality, the role of design is not only to improve technology, but also to effectively weave it into the fabric of daily life.

If the pace of technological advancement and information integration continues, it will eventually realize immersive 3D models of the world not only to be viewed and enjoyed, but also to be interacted with and changed. In addition to seeing problems as they occur, we will be able to understand root causes and make corrections, often in real time. When that happens, we will have successfully used big data to realize a “small world” that we can influence in entirely new ways.

And as the sensor systems themselves become capable of autonomous data collection and information creation, we will begin to encounter closed-loop spatial sensing networks capable not only of taking instructions, but also of taking action. When that happens, nearly every industry and government imaginable—and your daily life—will be deeply affected.

Productively designing these capabilities into business, governance, and society presents an enormous challenge that requires more than technical mastery. Ultimately an appreciation for human values and a deep awareness of the impact these changes have on the interconnected world is required. Only in this way can we hope to balance what is efficient with what is appropriate.