noisy city

“Smart Cities’ is the thing right now. Conferences and investment all over the place. Its been a long time coming as well, there is no shortage of academic thinking about cities and digital.

As of right now I have a small problem with the whole discussion as it currently has a very singular direction. It is being championed by large corporations, Philips etc and like the Big Data movement can be very dehumanising.

In Big Data, everyone pays lip service to the idea of Big Brother, but then its right on as we were, there is a lack of critical dialogue on what is happening in this space. Lots of people are doing good and clever things in examining this information but equally many of the externalities are not yet examined, let alone mitigated.

The same is true of the Smart City movement, as really this is the process of turning an environment into a repository and producer of realtime big data. How are we doing this? Sensors strewn across the city scape, all interconnected all bleating their piece of information and sponsorship.

As of right now there is a strong DIY and grass roots movement in place, the Internet of Things is not yet owned by the technocrats in power. Those that already own and barter the existing public service networks from the last centuries do not yet fully own the sensor and data networks that make up the instrumented city.

But events are being held that already appear less edgy and critical than they appeared to be last year. It could be that because of potential government investment the organisers and participants are already self censoring their ideas. A pot of initial investment in an idea is a valuable thing.

These ideas are going to make life different in the city and hopefully they will make them better but this will only happen if there is also the critical element in place, the ability to question the data, check the provenance, recalibrate and review.

James Lovelock wrote about building his own instruments for his science experiments that produced the data that enabled him to build the model of Gaia. How it helped to prove the damage we were wreaking on the ozone layer. He writes about how important it is to both build (and therefore fully understand how it works) your own tools and instruments and also the importance of actually going out and viewing the environment and collecting ‘actual’ data rather than relying on models.

Not everyone is going to be able to build their own sensors, not everyone is going to set up their own rig of data capture and broadcast around their homes, places of work etc. Yet, just as we need to make aure people understand how the digital is impacting their lives already, we need to make sure that the instrumentation that is collecting and sharing the data that will shape our interactions with the city fabric are true and unbiased.

Until then, we just risk building the noisy city, with the data of no real social worth to anyone except the corporates and power structures already in place.