They’re Tracking When You Turn Off the Lights
Municipal Sensor Networks Measure Everything From Air Pollution to Pedestrian Traffic; Building ‘a Fitbit for the City’
By Elizabeth Dwoskin
Oct. 20, 2014 9:20 p.m. ET
Four percent of Manhattanites go to bed before 7:30 p.m. on weeknights. Only 6% turn off the lights after midnight.
For more fine-grained data on what makes New York City tick, ask researcher Steven Koonin. Hidden on a Brooklyn rooftop, his wide-angle infrared camera peers at windows of thousands of buildings across the East River. The camera detects 800 gradations of light, a sensitivity that lets his software determine what time households turn in, what kind of light bulbs they use, and even what pollutants their buildings emit.
He has also mounted sound sensors in Brooklyn on streetlight poles and building facades to gauge the volume of house parties and car horns.
Mr. Koonin, a former undersecretary of science in the Obama administration who directs New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, is at the forefront of an academic movement to quantify urban life.
Tech companies have used the technologies and techniques collectively known as big data to make business decisions and shape their customers’ experience. Now researchers are bringing big data into the public sphere, aiming to improve quality of life, save money, and understand cities in ways that weren’t possible only a few years ago.
“It’s like when Galileo first turned the telescope on the heavens,” said Mr. Koonin. “It’s just a whole new way of looking at society.”
In doing so, researchers are raising questions about the proper balance between privacy and efficiency. Municipal sensor networks offer big opportunities, but they also carry risks. In turning personal habits into digital contrails, the technology may tempt authorities to misuse it. While academics aim to promote privacy and transparency, some worry that the benefits of big data could be lost if the public grows wary of being monitored.
“For a long time, people living in cities pretended that they could be anonymous,” said Anthony Townsend, author of the book “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.” “It’s not about anonymity but about surveillance. There is a real reckoning that’s going to happen.”
The NYU center, which receives millions of dollars in financing from several corporations, including Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. , as well as New York City, is one of a handful of new academic institutions undertaking municipal big data projects. In the coming weeks, the University of Chicago will install dozens of sensor packs on street lamps in the city’s central business district and elsewhere. Each pack, roughly the size of a thick laptop, contains 65 sensors intended to capture data on environmental conditions including sound volume, wind and carbon-dioxide levels, as well as behavioral data such as pedestrian traffic flow as revealed by Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones.
The Chicago installation is funded by a $200,000 federal grant plus donations fromQualcomm Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and other companies.
“It’s like a Fitbit for the city,” said Charlie Catlett, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data, the institute leading the city’s “Array of Things” project.