Look closely at your cell phone. Watch out! It might be looking right back at you, sending information about your location to a map, where you will join other people in your town as dynamic parts of a real-time geophysical landscape. Cell phones like these are drawing the map of the future, according to the research team behind the SENSEable City Lab.
The SENSEable City Lab is a research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology through the school's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Armed with sensors and wireless handheld devices, Dr. Carlo Ratti and his team of researchers are pioneering a new kind of urban planning, studying cities and college campuses and mapping individuals' real-time movements to understand how new technologies will change the way people live in the future. According to the lab's vision statement: "Technology, miniaturized and dispersed in a built environment, is covering our cities in a blanket of interconnected digital bits." The SENSEable team is collecting that data and using our reliance on mobile devices to read and learn about how communities work by connecting those dots.
Ratti's mapping experiments began at the MIT campus, one of the country's most wired communities. The lab tracked wireless internet usage by harvesting data from 2,600 wireless hubs every 15 minutes. Statistics were converted into charts and real-time maps and displayed at ispots.mit.edu. If users had nothing to hide, they could elect to have their location identified within a 5 meter range and tracked by iSpots.
The next step was mapping an entire city: Graz, Austria. Using cell phone towers to "ping" thousands of citizens' cell phones, the team was able to chart movement almost instantaneously. A1/Mobilkom Austria, an Austrian cell phone service provider, sent the ping data to a server at MIT, where it was plotted using ArcGIS geographic information software and a spatial map of Graz, and animated using Macromedia Flash.
The resulting 3-D maps might look like psychedelic artwork, but Ratti and his colleagues have practical, and grand, ambitions for their research. Urban planners can gather information about how people use the city's infrastructure by watching the way they actually move through it. As cities respond to the growing demand for wireless access, there will be more tools to read locations and identities—so much so that in the future you might be able to see your friend's exact location a mile away when he calls, or hail a taxi by searching a real-time map and sending a message to an available one around the corner. As a result of Ratti's personal encounter with the deadly 2004 tsunami, he's also working to use this technology as a better way to rescue disaster survivors. Currently, the team is studying Rome, Italy, and will reveal their findings at the 2006 Venice Biennale.
SENSEable City Lab isn't the first attempt at real-time mapping. SmartMobs.com works on a smaller scale to allow people with the same interests in the same area to identify each other. The Dutch Waag Society asked Amsterdam residents in 2002 to carry GPS devices to create a similar real-time map. However, SENSEable City Labs is among the first to use people's personal devices, cell phones and laptops, to trace them without them being conscious of it. "With Google's ad-supported push into mobile services and many major cities wiring up for universal broadband access, we'll see these early experiments accelerating quickly," predicts Shore Communications senior analyst John Blossom.
Privacy advocates are nervous at the prospect of being "seen" through their wireless devices, but Blossom sees the potential for a compromise to strike the balance between sharing and controlling one's own personal information. "Tracking applications must make sure that they allow individuals to opt in to these services," says Blossom, "but in an electronic era, people are going to weight the value of privacy against intimacy, safety, and other personal or group rewards." The legal and ethical boundaries are still unclear, but SENSEable City Lab plans to use the evolving wireless technology to make sense out of a dynamic human landscape.