You can’t seem to swing a cursor without bumping into some site or another waxing lyrical about the multi-million dollar investments and pilot projects promising to connect, well, pretty much everything to pretty much everything else via the internet. The implications of the Internet of Things (IoT) are, of course, much bigger than the convenience of your fridge knowing before the milk runs out (don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing worse than pouring out cereal before realizing there’s no milk left) and local governments across world seem eager to embrace the technologies, both sensory and actuated, poised to add a little smart to their cities. Meanwhile, the intrinsic ability for connected sensors to collect and transmit information has already exponentially increased data volumes giving plenty food for thought for problem-solvers, planners and privacy advocates alike in urban landscapes. But what can the average city-dweller really gain from hyper-connectivity and – more importantly yet – what can they lose?
In its first applications what we know IoT to be today, internet connected fridges and rabbits that read you the latest stock prices were thought of to be time-savers at best, and expensive gimmicks at worst. And rightly so – consumers in the early 2000s weren’t accustomed to pay premiums for things the internet and their humanely senses could do for free. It wasn’t until around 2008-2009, according to Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group, when internet-connected devices across the world outnumbered the global population, ushering in a new critical look at the endless possibilities for application and innovation of IoT; products and services that do more than automate things that, let’s face it, don’t really need automation. While the machine-to-man two-way flow of information has been embedded in the way we communicate, educate and entertain ourselves, it’s the machine-to-machine connection that’s really changing the way urbanites go about their lives. Cities have just recently begun realizing that the benefits of a network of networks of connected objects can bring them.
For the optimist, this means that governments and decision-makers are finally keeping up pace with the population, problem-solving based on indisputable data, solving their woes without the need of bureaucratic process and antiquated forms of civil engagement. Take, for example, Palo Alto’s recent $100,000 deal with VIMOC Technologies in a move to install over 500 parking sensors in the city and its concurrent campaign to encourage children to walk and cycle to school. With a consumer app, this network can alert residents and frequenters of tech innovation capital of empty spots in real time, while allowing them to come to conclusions about which areas often have empty spots and at which time periods. Meanwhile, data gleaned from both the sensors and the app can intelligently influence decision-making as it can be interpreted to give concrete facts and figures on traffic flows and congested areas, in order for urban planners to best place new cross walks and bike lanes to support their campaign. Ultimately, the behavioral data gathered can reshape the transport and physical infrastructure of a city, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when you think about all the data that can be collected, analyzed and deployed through the navigation, transport and mapping softwares we use on a daily basis, from Waze to Uber to local public transport apps.
Now if traffic isn’t your concern, take Chicago’s tried, tested and successful mechanism for preempting rodent infestation. Speaking at the Internet of Things World Forum in Chicago in 2013 (an indication, if there ever was one, that the Windy City is one of the staunchest early adopters of IoT), the city’s Chief Data Officer explained how 31 data sources, including sensors that show where garbage cans are full, weather patterns and the location of empty buildings, are compiled to predict where rat nests would emerge, allowing them to dispatch bait trucks a whole week before a petrified citizen would usually report it.
If the pursuit of pleasure is more on your mind than the pursuit of pests, then consider Estimote’s beacon set up that interacts with smartphone apps to give you contextual information when you enter a store or event, from guiding customers to a new pair of shoes in their size or telling a music festival goer what they’re missing at the other stages or venues. Already installed at FC Barcelona’s iconic Camp Nou stadium and a score of international retailers, airports and galleries, enterprises are increasingly shaping our real life experiences through virtual means.
Meanwhile, Table Tracker has already been deployed in several US restaurants, replacing the traditional ‘take a number and the server will find you’ model with sensors, apparently saving restaurants eight hours a day usually wasted searching for the correct table. Too hot on your tour of Singapore? Stand under the shade of their Supertrees – not only erected to collect and transmit a variety of environmental data, but will actually automatically disperse heat when they deem it just too warm. Over in Sydney, a $500,000 investment in Mousetrap electronic chemical sensors is well on its way to putting a dent in the $34 million spent by the city annually on cleaning up graffiti, as the technology put in place at rail stations can alert security guards in real-time when someone so much as sprays the first letter of their gang name. And they’ve already caught 30 offenders.
If it’s all sounding a bit Minority Report to you, it’s no surprise, and here’s where things get tricky. Much like how Chicago can predict a rat infestation based on data, what if governments could also predict human behaviors? And, what if user generated data is used for bad and not for good? As much as hyper-connectivity can help make city life more efficient and enjoyable, it can also pose security and privacy threats for all parties involved. In early 2015, US police officers voiced concerns and demanded a meeting with Google, after the convicted murderer of two NYPD officers was found to have used the Waze mapping app prior to his attack – an application that combines GPS data and social networking to warn drivers to the exact locations of traffic, accidents and, crucially for law enforcement, police traps.
On the other end of the security spectrum, London’s Oyster Card system – a cashless smartcard payment scheme for public transport – has certainly provided troves of data on daily movement for the city. Almost obligatory now on all modes of transport (London buses no longer accept cash; trains and the Tube incentivize Oyster Card use through considerably lower pricing compared to paper tickets), the data provides an unprecedented look at the flow of people on both the overall and individual level, helping the city make decisions to add, remove or re-route transportation based on need, use and unexpected events. However, on the individual level, it wasn’t long before relationships were at stake as a recorded history of where an Oyster Card holder has been is easily accessed online or by touching the card in question at a top-up station (cue jealous girlfriends wondering why their boyfriends were at Covent Garden at 7.02pm last Thursday when they said they were at the office). Meanwhile, by 2006, just three years into the roll-out of the Oyster network, London Metropolitan Police had made 243 requests to access travel records. In 2011, almost 7000 requests were made, and though there have been a few high profile successes in police using this data (hapless criminals who mug or murder then use the victim’s Oyster Card), it’s easy to begin to see why promoters of privacy might have concerns with the amount of personal data that’s floating around between machines – a concern exacerbated when Barclay’s added Oyster functionality to many of their consumer credit cards.
If we consider again Palo Alto’s parking sensor scheme from a more sinister point of view, we can imagine a car jacker monitoring his victim’s daily routine to choose the perfect moment (and exact location) to strike. Meanwhile, a system of high-tech microphones and cameras by Shotspotter are already installed across 90 cities in the USA, alerting security forces when a gunshot is heard. This all sounded well and good when data analysis in New Jersey’s Camden showed that 38% of gunshots were not being reported to the police at all, and that mass shootings at public places make headlines way too often, but things took an unsettling twist when it was realized that the devices are constantly recording. Now, if we contemplate a future where the Internet of Things becomes the Internet of Everything, our cities might get a lot more efficient but the use of our data could make things incredibly intimidating.