Ultimately, it won’t be just our phones collecting and interfacing with the information around us. Data sensors will be embedded in streets, buildings and even in cars and transit vehicles. Building such a network could bring about what many have called the Internet of Things — a concept that foresees the ability of physical objects and people to communicate and share information. A water pipe could tell a central computer that it’s about to fracture. A road could communicate with a streetlight to tell it that, after hours of sitting dark, it will need to illuminate for a car heading in its direction. An apartment building could determine that an oven is still on after the resident leaves for work and could switch it off.
Much of the progress being made toward the Internet of Things has occurred in transportation. In the very near future, cars will communicate with other cars to improve the safety and flow of traffic. Google’s self-driving car is one high-profile example, but another project, run by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is a more likely predictor of where this concept could go. The NHTSA recently launched a yearlong test enabling 2,800 cars in Ann Arbor, Mich., to effectively communicate directly with one another. They have short-range radio devices installed that constantly let each other know exactly where they are. Through visuals in the dashboard and physical cues like seat vibrators, the test cars are able to notify their drivers when they’re veering out of a lane too close to other cars or driving too fast toward stopped cars ahead. The goal of the test is to determine how well this technology can increase road safety, eventually paving the way for a requirement that all automakers install this type of car-to-car communication capability.
For now, the sensors of choice for the smart city are our smartphones. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab have been exploring the potential of various mobile devices for nearly a decade. One effort tapped into anonymized cellphone data to map the movement of people throughout Rome on a given night. Another used mobile phones and other urban sensor data to create a real-time map of Singapore that was able to tell people detailed information about their surroundings, such as which nearby restaurants were busiest and which transportation routes were more congested than usual. These projects provide a rare and comprehensive look at the ways people interact with their city. This type of data could fuel all kinds of analyses, from identifying traffic bottlenecks to determining a good place to open a bar.
There’s an undeniable Big Brother element in a lot of these concepts. Do we really want our phones to spy on everything we do and everything that happens around us? Probably not. There’s also the question of who has access to this data, how much they can know about each data point, and whether or not the data can be owned — all questions that must be resolved in the near future. But for all the worrisome prospects, there’s much to gain from the ability of our phones to collect and analyze and share the data points that surround us.
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