How citizens have become sensors

This piece was originally featured in "City 2.0: The Habitat of the Future and How to Get There." “Citizens as sensors” has been reprinted with permission from TED Books (TED Books and the Atlantic Cities, 2013). Access information about the ebook online here

Our cities are talking, and we’re talking back.

Today, the data of a city is flowing constantly  across intersections, over power lines, aboard buses and through the water pipes beneath our streets  and it’s being quantified and scrutinized more than ever. The data is endless. And although it has always been there, only recently have we figured out ways to use it. Cities now examine data (or, more accurately, a computer-aided interpretation of it) to anticipate spikes in electricity demand or to synchronize streetlights to prevent traffic snarls. In the urban context, information feedback loops are making it easier for us to optimize the ways our cities work. The so-called smart city we all keep hearing about is being built on a fundamental premise: With enough data and powerful analytical tools, we can make our cities better.

Smartphones put this process into overdrive; they’re already collecting and sharing the sort of information that will underpin the future smart city. We can get directions, learn transit times or find parking thanks to our Internet-equipped mobile phones. As smartphones advance technologically, their owners will become  knowingly or not  integral nodes in this vast and dynamic network.

Indeed, the citizen sensor is already reality. Through check-in applications like Foursquare and geotagging photo tools like Instagram, we’re able to provide fairly precise data about ourselves, what we’re doing and where we are. The utility here may be more for social purposes than anything else, but it’s important to recognize that we apparently have no problem actively providing information for others to consume. We’re comfortable being the data source.

Next page:  How much data collection is acceptable?