Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

City Life on the Screen
MIT researchers map cities in real time
By Peter Dizikes. Nature Network Boston, September 27, 2007

The city of Rome lit up on September 8, thanks to the annual Notte Bianca (“white night”), a popular festival of arts, music, and theater. In the south of Rome that evening, attached to a wall on the Museum of the High Middle Ages, a large-screen video display also lit up, instantaneously charting the movements of thousands of Romans enjoying the festivities.

The effort is the handiwork of MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory, a research group exploring how ad-hoc networks can enable city dwellers, like those in Rome, to see their surroundings in new ways. Its project, “Wiki City Rome,” was the first real-time demonstration of its technology.

“By revealing the pulse of the city, the project aimed to show how technology can help individuals make more informed decisions about their environment,” said Carlo Ratti, the SENSEable lab’s director and an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, in an e-mail from Scotland, where he is meeting research partners. During Notte Bianca, people could have used the display to spot the largest crowds in Rome and either seek them out or avoid them.

Spot the crowd

To track the flow of Romans, the MIT group collected location information from cell phones and GPS devices on buses and taxis. In cooperation with Telecom Italia, Rome’s transport authority, and corporate partners, the group aggregated the data and visually mapped the density and movement of people in real time throughout the whole of the Eternal City.

This technology has clear implications for public policy and commerce. City planners could study traffic patterns to allocate public transportation more efficiently; companies could examine foot traffic and determine where to locate stores or advertisements. Residents could use it to avoid nasty traffic jams. One of the corporate partners on this project, technology firm SEAT Pagine Gialle, plans to use the data in its devices for cars that would inform drivers about traffic flow and help them find the best routes.

“One reason the SENSEable project is interesting is because it feeds information back to people,” said Federico Casalegno, director of MIT’s Mobile Experience Laboratory, who has studied the effects of technological networks on urban life. “The inhabitants have a better idea of their own city and can adjust their behavior accordingly.”

Rolling out

The next Wiki City for Ratti and his group will likely be Graz, Austria, followed by Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Ratti said he’s focused on these cities, rather than Boston or Cambridge, because of the greater use of mobile devices in Europe than in the United States.

Ratti also believes his technology could be used in fast-growing metropolitan areas where chaotic sprawl is the norm. “In many rapidly evolving cities, the cell-phone infrastructure grows faster than other types of infrastructure and can be used to better understand and monitor urban change,” noted Ratti, adding that a telecommunications company in Manila has just contacted the group about their work.

Tracking people raises privacy and security issues. Ratti says his project limits those concerns by using only aggregate information. “We are not dealing with individual data at all,” he said. Yet, some hard choices remain. For instance, the SENSEable group could potentially track the movements of foreigners by isolating foreign cell-phone numbers from the data. While being able to locate tourist groups can be valuable economically, it can raise public-safety worries. For now, as Ratti notes, the first data users will likely be private companies and city planners, not the general public, giving the SENSEable lab, its corporate partners, and government agencies time to test security protocols and to consider how to distribute the information safely.


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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