The Observant City and Self

"Within a 40 min time span, I checked out a bike from the Bicing network using my member card, I rolled over a loop detector, I accessed a coffee shop WiFi network, a cashier swiped my fidelity card, I checked in Foursquare and access Google Maps on my mobile phone, as I am moving, two mobile network antennas produced a hand-over of my communication, I acquired a product with an RFID attached to it, I pass nearby Bluetooth scanners deployed to measure the traffic at La Rambla, I checked back in my bike, I appeared in a photo taken by a tourist at Plaza Catalunya, later uploaded to Picassa and finally, I use a T-10 ticket to access the subway system." -- Fabien Girardin 

What a world we live in.  We’ve created all this technology to observe the city, and yet it is us who are observed. Entire cities are being constructed on the premise of observation – an idea that with systematic data collection, we can tease out the important information to make our cities run more efficiently and our lives more convenient.

But what exactly is that data? It’s not the city’s data so much as it is our own. Not the efficiency of the pipes but how much water we use. Not the congestion on the streets but how much we drive. The sensors of “smart” cities are like the computers in our cars: sensors designed to measure, in real time, everything that comes in and goes out of the system. And ultimately it is us who are responsible for the myriad inflows and outflows.

Of course, smarter cities have the potential to increase dramatically our level of understanding of human interaction and production. There are huge benefits, no doubt. And at the same time, an opinion piece in the New York Times this morning reminds us that temporarily pulling away from the vast array of information available to us today is perhaps the most essential of actions to processing it.

As we head into 2012, I’m reminding myself of the importance of balance. As we speed forward toward smart and connected cities as a civilization, individually we must take rest stops on the information superhighway – lest we mistake the data trees for the information forest. The information that truly brings efficiency and convenience to our lives.

-          Terra Curtis