Who Gets to Optimize?

The week before last I spent a very enjoyable day in Cambridge, Massachusetts taking in presentations at Harvard and MIT. I traveled there partially by train, which gave me a chance to test out the MBTA’s free WiFi service, and also to assess the restoration of various rail lines in Eastern Massachusetts. If you want to read a bit more about this particular trip, there are additional column inches of mine over at GregorWeekly.com. But today I wanted to address a lingering question I’ve had, since seeing one of these presentations by the MIT SENSEable City Lab: who gets to benefit from the optimization of our urban systems?

London-ParisThe vertical looking map of two cities you see here shows the recent work of urban efficiency researchers from Sao Paolo, and their study was mentioned in the physics Arxiv blog at the MIT Technology Review, from which this graphic is pulled. The top square is of London, as many might have guessed. The shape of the Thames is rather distinctive, or it is to me at least having lived there.

But the city below London is perhaps not as easy to identify. That’s Paris, and according to the work done by researchers it’s a much more accessible city to its citizens, than London. One of the lingering hurdles for London apparently, despite its extensive subway system, is the River Thames. I find this “discovery” both amusing in once sense but also poetic. It confirms that the modern Londoner is still coping with a natural feature that likely presented similar hurdles to the Roman Empire, during the days when the city was known as Londinium. Having lived on the South Bank myself, I can attest that getting out of the borough of Lambeth was often a chore, a hurdle not experienced by friends who lived in the West End.

The quest for urban efficiencies and optimization is of course not new. Over the past few weeks I’ve probed a bit more into the subject and found yet another rather intriguing map. Again, back to London, this is a Victorian era re-imagining of the city as a honeycomb of hexagons. I found this map at the Strange Maps blog. Cartography nuts take note!

London As it Might Have Been

These questions about accessibility, efficiency, and different mappings are exactly the ones posed for all cities, by MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. And one of the central strategies to the lab’s work is to employ new techniques for gathering urban data. Data relating to mobile phone usage, traffic patterns, and even garbage and water systems. What the SENSEable City Lab aims to do however is devise new systems that could feed back this data to city residents. With the lab’s Copenhagen Wheel, for example, which is an al a carte bicycle wheel fitted with wireless/GPS/data collection, the lab imagines (correctly so, I think) that a future urban cyclist could both transmit data from their own journey through the city, while also receiving collective data from all cyclists in the city.

During the presentation, which was given by the director Carlo Ratti, I watched a more elaborate explanation of how MIT had been given all mobile phone data for Rome during the time of the World Cup soccer match in 2006. The project, presented at the Venice Biennale, was called Real Time Rome and here the lab is asking questions about how data such as this can be used to watch both auto and pedestrian traffic, and again, to imagine ways this can be fed back to the city, or to users.

As I’m quite interested in energy transition more generally, the electrification of transport, and also the reintegration of agriculture into cites, I find the work of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab quite compelling. The social and economic question I have, however, is who will capture the savings from continued advances in efficiency? Will benefits accrue to city government budgets and city dwellers, or, to those who own the Big Data? Or will it be shared? Perhaps one answer comes from Smart Grid technology, employed now in such cities as Boulder, Colorado. It would appear that excess energy capture will generally be shared by both the utility, and, the home energy user who is both producing–and using–energy data. As a general proposition, it seems the economic benefits of user-generated-data should indeed be shared. I simply pose a general question: who will own the emergent intelligence, that will surround our large urban systems?

-Gregor