An Environment Monitoring System as Element of Urban Life

Posted: May 21st, 2009 | No Comments »

I am co-writing the journal version of the paper Real-Time Geo-awareness – Sensor Data Integration for Environmental Monitoring in the City, a work led by Bernd Resch. My contribution considers the implications of the integration of environment monitoring system as element of urban life. I plan to articulate it as follows:

a) Tools to support practitioners
I reemphasize that this kind of work is first targeted to the information needs of local and regional governments. It can change the work of practitioners that was previously about predicting and accommodating and now it becomes more observing and improving. Indeed, this new ability to render all kinds of ‘machine readable’ environments not only provide new views on the city, but also provide urban and transportation engineers and planners with indicators to evaluate their interventions. For instance Dan Hill and Duncan Wilson foresee the ability to tune buildings and cities through pre and post occupancy evaluations. They speculate that the future of environmental information will be part of the fabric of buildings (see The New Well-Tempered Environment: Tuning Buildings and Cities). However, this integration opens all sorts of issues regarding sampling, density, standardization, quality control, power control, officiality of data, and update frequency (freshness).

b) An imperfect mirror to reality
A complete picture might be hard to achieve with incomplete environmental data patched together by data mining, filtering and visualization algorithms. In many ways we are limited to classic technical issues related to data resolution and heterogeneity. Even mobile sensors do not yet provide high-density sampling coverage over a wide area, limiting research to sense what is technically possible to sense with economical and social constraints. One set of solutions rely on the calibration of mathematical models with only a few sensors nodes and complementing data sources to create a set of spatial indicators. Another, approach aims at revealing instead of hiding the incompleteness of the data. Visualizing the uncertainty of spatial data is a recurrent theme in cartography and information visualization (see Approaches to Uncertainty Visualization). These uncertainty visualization techniques present data in such a manner that users are made aware of the degree of uncertainty in their data so as to make more informed analyses and decision. It is a strategy to promote the user appropriation of the information with an awareness of its limitations (see Notes on Seams, Seamfulness and Seamlessness).

c) Crowdsourcing
Another way to improve the environment data is to alter the current model whereby civic government would act as sole data-gatherer and decision-maker by empowering everyday citizen to monitor the environment with sensor-enabled mobile devices. Recently providers of geographic and urban data have also learned the value of people-centric sensing to improve their services and from the activities of their customers. For instance the body of knowledge on a city’s road conditions and real-time road traffic network information thrive on the crowdsourcing of geodata the owners of TomTom system and mobile phone operators customers generate. Similarly, the users of Google MyMaps have contributed, without their awareness, to the production the massive database necessary for the development of the location-based version of the application. This people-centric approach to gather data raise legitimate privacy concerns. These issues can be handled with a mix of policy definition, local processing, verification and privacy preserving data mining techniques (see Debates on Privacy-Preserving Statistics and Data Mining). These technical solutions necessitate a richer discussion beyond the academic domain on these observing technologies’ social implications.

d) Linking people to their environment
Similar crowdsourcing strategies have been considered for environmental monitoring with individuals acting as sensor nodes and coming together with other people in order to form sensor networks. Several research project explore a wide rande of novel physical sensors attached to mobile devices empowering everyday non-experts with sensing abilities. For instance, Participatory Urbanism investigates the empowerment of citizens to collect and share air quality data measured with sensor-enabled mobile devices. This ‘citizen science’ approach creates value information for researchers of data generated by people going on their daily life, often based on explicit and participatory sensing actions. By turning mobile phones (SensorPlanet), watches (Montre Verte) or bikes (MetroSense) into sensing devices, the researchers hope that public understandings of science and environmental issues will be improved and can have have access to larger and more detailed data sets. This access to environmental data of the city also become a tool to raise the citizen awareness of the state of the environment. Moreover, with the increasing rendering ability of data processing and visualization solutions, citizen can become the actual producers of these awareness tool (example: In the Air).

e) Linking people to their practices
These data gathering and rendering possibilities also implies that we are at the end of the ephemeral, in some ways we will be able to replay the city. In contrast we are also ahead of conflicts to reveal or hide unwanted evidences, when new data can be used to the detriment of some stakeholder and policy makers. Indeed, the capacity to collect and disseminate reconfigure sensor data influence political networks, focussing on environmental data as products or objects that can be used for future political action. Therefore, the openness, quality, confidence and trust in the data will also be subject of debate (e.g. bias to have people record their observations, who gets to report data and who not). The implication of citizens in measuring, sharing, and discussing our environment might increase agencies’ and decision makers’ understanding of a community’s claims, thereby potentially increasing public trust in the information provided by a real-time geo-awareness approach. In consequence this could connect people to the environment in which they live, and provide them with tools for reflection on the impacts of their practices (for example Scanning Objects in the Wild: Assessing an Object Triggered Information System). This objective of improving the environmental sustainability of a city calls for behavior modification can be induced by intervening in moments of local decision-making and by providing people with new rewards and new motivations for desirable behaviors (see Stanford Pesuasive Computing Lab). These kinds of strategies have been common, for instance, in health and fitness applications. However, when we think about persuasion in the real of environment sustainability, what we might want to persuade people of is the ways in which their interests are aligned with those of others (see Paul Dourish’s Points of Persuasion: Strategic Essentialism and Environmental Sustainability). Therefore, this process of alignment and mobilization, by which one can start to find one’s own interests as being congruent with those of others will be critical in the success of these strategies based on real-time geo-awareness.

Relation to my thesis: Applying the kind of transdisciplinary work I have been discussing since the Real-Time Cities Round Table I setup last year. Here trying to provide an HCI perspective to the cutting edge work lead by research in GIS (Research Studio iSPACE) and Environmental Fluid Dynamics (Rex Britter) in the domain of sensor data integration for urban environmental monitoring.

Obama | One People: Data Analysis and Visualizations

Posted: May 21st, 2009 | No Comments »

The MIT SENSEable City Lab has unveiled a new project that visualized and analyzed the mobile phone call activity that characterize the crowd Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day. Led by Andrea Vaccari, this work aims at answering the questions: Who was in Washington, D.C. for President Obama’s Inauguration Day? When did they arrive, where did they go, and how long did they stay? The data analyzed consists of hourly counts of mobile phone calls served in Washington, D.C. and includes the origin of the phones involved in the calls. To ensure the complete privacy of the mobile customers.

Besides the dazzling visualizations of Washington DC and the World developed by Mauro Martino, the early findings of the data analysis confirm and quantify the popular impressions. For instance, examining the relative increase in call activity by state reveals some unexpected results. In absolute terms, the most represented states were, unsurprisingly, the most populous: California, Florida, New York, and Texas. In relative terms, the states with the strongest increase were the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, with calls up to twelve times the normal levels. These are states that played a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement and notably are also so-called red states whose voting population went for the Republican candidate, John McCain. Other states with a ten-fold increase in call activity were Illinois, Barack Obama’s home state, and Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, swing states which went blue, voting for President Obama. Most interestingly, comparing these results with U.S. demographic statistics shows that the percentage of African Americans in each U.S. state is a predominant factor determining increase in call activity and therefore participation in the event, which instead was not necessarily influenced by the state’s proximity to Washington, D.C. or its political leaning.

The City joins the mobile call data with a map of Washington D.C. to produce a stirring visualization. The areas around the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, where most inaugural activities took place, are highlighted on the map with 3-D building models colored in yellow. In the center of the screen, the map of Washington, D.C. is overlaid with a 3-D color-coded animated surface of square tiles (1 tile represents an area of 150 x 150 meters). Each tile rises and turns red as call activity increases and likewise drops and turns yellow as activity decreases. On the left, a bar chart breaks down the call activity by showing the normalized contributions of calls from the 50 states and 138 foreign countries grouped by continent. The timeline at the bottom illustrates the overall trend of call activity in the city during the week of the Presidential Inauguration.

Similarly, the analyses on call activity in the days before and after January 20 also reveal that the Inauguration was a multi-day event as mobile phone traffic increased markedly throughout the week. The hotspots of activity were clustered in the Northwest neighborhoods of the city, around Downtown, Adams Morgan and U Street.

Relation to my thesis: While these results confirm the popular impressions, they are yet another example on the potential to quantify and compare the presence of people in different areas of the city and to unveil their dynamic movements through time (where people come from compared to a regular day, the Inauguration was a multi-day event). A next step in this kind of research process would be to better link the findings of the data analysis with the visualizations.

Accepted Paper: Quantifying urban attractiveness from the distribution and density of digital footprints

Posted: May 19th, 2009 | No Comments »

My paper Quantifying urban attractiveness from the distribution and density of digital footprints (pre-editing PDF copy) co-authored with Andrea Vaccari, Alexandre Gerber, Assaf Biderman and Carlo Ratti has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research, pending minor revisions. I would be extremely curious to hear the feedback of practitioners and other researchers on that work. The abstract goes as follows:

Abstract. In the past, sensors networks in cities have been limited to fixed sensors, embedded in particular locations, under centralised control. Today, new applications can leverage wireless devices and use them as sensors to develop aggregated information. In this paper, we show that the emerging patterns unveiled through the analysis of large sets of aggregated digital footprints can provide novel insights into how people experience the city and into some of the drives behind these emerging patterns. This information has uses for local authorities, researchers, as well as service providers such as mobile network operators. To explore this capacity for quantifying urban attractiveness, we performed a case study using the distribution and density of digital footprints in the area of the New York City Waterfalls, a public art project of four man-made waterfalls rising from the New York Harbor. Methods to study the impact of an event of this nature are traditionally based on the collection of static information such as surveys and ticket-based people counts, which allow to generate estimates about visitors’ presence in specific areas over time. In contrast, our contribution makes use of the dynamic data that visitors generate, such as the amount and distribution of aggregate phone calls and photos taken in different areas of interest and over time. Our analysis provides novel ways to quantify the impact of the public art exhibit on the distribution of visitors and the attractiveness of points of interest in the proximity of the event.

The paper received good grades particularly for its originality and relevance to spatial data infrastructure research. The reviewers suggest several areas of improvement:

a) Comparative evaluation with tradition surveys
It seems necessary to provide a more reflective discussion of what exactly is the added value of our approach compared to traditional surveys(comparative evaluation with strength and weaknesses). Here I could take some of the argumentation developed by Carlo Ratti in his critique of Space Syntax: Space syntax: some inconsistencies. Then of course, I can compare with the official economic impact study performed on the Waterfalls. Anthony Townsend offers some thoughts on the mix of survey methods “the interplay between top-down systems of command and control versus bottom-up systems for collective action“.

Plus, I have to make an extra effort to describe that, following the literature, we conceptualized spatial attractiveness as a property of a well-defined place that has variable size. One reviewer seemed to have understood that our concept of urban attractiveness was based on a continuous field. Also, I have to improve with more details the data collection process (with reference to prior papers that go more into details with that aspect of the work).

b) Expended literature review
Indicators and centrality
There is a need of an expanded review of the current literature 2 on indicators, centrality, etc. to help understand the added value of our approach. This point is related to a). I could the examples of the indicators developed at Barcelona Ecologia, particularly in the domain of public space and mobility developed by good friend Yuji Yoshimura (blog). These practical example can be augmented by some of my consideration on Urban Attractiveness particularly, the mention to centrality, density and attractiveness:

In other words, city centers have been the focal point of citizen’s urban life. Therefore, the lack of monitoring of their attractiveness could be regarded as an immediate threat to the liveliness of their economy. Measures from urban data (e.g. land use, census, traffic data) and statistics (e.g. NYC’s Sustainable Streets Index) traditionally feed the suspicions and are less traditionally augmented with the systematic collection of people’s experience, as suggested by Marek Kozlowski’s PhD thesis Urban Design: Shaping Attractiveness of the Urban Environment with the End-Users that aims at obtaining subjective views of end-users and integrating this information into the urban design process.

There might be more relevant references in the Urbanism on Track book.

Volunteer generated information
Several important contributions on volunteer generated information are missing from the literature review. In particular of the recent special issue of GeoJournal such as Discovering points of interest from users’ map annotations and Volunteered geographic information: key questions, concepts and methods to guide emerging research and practice. There is also Matt Zook’s New Digital Geographies: Information, Communication, and Place (already mentioned in the conclusion of my thesis) and more recently How Does Software Make Space? Exploring Some Geographical Dimensions of Pervasive Computing and Software Studies by Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Matt Zook. In the discussion on the quality of digital footprints there is a relevant paper on Addressing vagueness in Volunteered Geographic Information, still under review in the International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research, Special Issue GSDI-11.

It will be important to refer to the more practical works that have emerged after the submission of the paper such as Mapping the cultural buzz and Mapping the World’s Photos

c) Density estimation and Spatial interaction modeling
It would be good to link this work to the literature of density estimation (see Bernard Silverman’s Density Estimation for Statistics and Data Analysis) nd of the estimation of attractiveness in the context of spatial interaction modeling (Fotheringham and O’Kelly’s Spatial Interaction Models: Formulations and Applications). A reviewer mentions this would help to place the work on a sounder basis, and to address the kinds of “why” questions that would make the paper more than descriptive.

d) More work on figures
More attention could be paid to the figures, particularly Figure 3 could display isolines, location points of photos could appead on Figure 4 and there could be an effort to map more effectively the urban indicators such as attractiveness and PlaceRank

Relation to my thesis: This paper is part of the research on the Next Generation Digital Earth, promoted by the Vespucci Initiative. I have a lot of sympathy for their open research model of the International Journal of Spatial Data Infrastructures Research based on creative commons license. This greatly facilitate the timely exchange of ideas and feedback. The publication of this paper is important to close my thesis. The research on the NYC Waterfalls generated also generated a conference paper focused on estimating the presence of visitors of the exhibit. It will be presented at the 11th International Conference on Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management (CUPUM)
Related to: Reviews From Latest Submitted Papers

Debates on Privacy-Preserving Statistics and Data Mining

Posted: May 19th, 2009 | No Comments »

A couple of initiative to discuss the management and mining of personal electronic information: The MIT SENSEable City Lab starts the Engaging Data Initiative with the First International Forum on the Application and Management of Personal Electronic Information (see CFP). The goal of this forum is to explore the novel applications for electronic data and address the risks, concerns, and consumer opinions associated with the use of this data. At the other side of the Pond, an afternoon will be dedicated to the obligations of French companies in handling their personal electronic information: Anonymisation des données : Cachez ces informations que nous ne devrions voir !.

The paper Mobiscopes for Human Spaces set the debate on these privacy-preserving data mining issues. They present a “mobiscope” has a federation of distributed mobile sensors into a taskable sensing system that achieves high-density sampling coverage over a wide area through mobility. Vehicular and handheld mobiscopes complement static sensing systems by addressing the fundamental limitations created by fixed sensors. Classic technical issues relate to data resolution and heterogeneity. The authors propose to handle privacy issues with policy definition, local processing (such as for my travel survey study), verification and privacy preserving data mining. Besides these technical solutions they acknlowledge the necessity to have a richer discussion of these observing technologies’ social implications

  • explicitly considering broader policy precedents in information privacy as they apply to mobiscopes,
  • extending popular education on information technology’s new observation capabilities,
  • facilitating individuals’ participation in sensing their own lives, and
  • helping users understand and audit their own data uploads.

However, the debate avoids the motivations behind research works behind mobiscopes. For instance, in what scenarios do we need high spatial density to accurately sample the field of spatially varying phenomena? When do the desirability of instantaneity and speed contributing to the health of society? Who are the “users” (a term often abused in the literature on personal electronic information) and are these “users” aware of their role of “user? For instance, reading You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy? makes me wonder if the debate on privacy can evolve if researchers do not make a serious effort in describing value-added scenarios without a techno-deterministic rhetoric.

Abdelzaher, T., Anokwa, Y., Boda, P., Burke, J., Estrin, D., Guibas, L., Kansal, A., Madden, S., and Reich, J. (2007). Mobiscopes for human spaces. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 6(2):20–29

Eric Sadin, Surveillance globale (généralisation du principe de quantification invidualisée des personnes qui se met en place depuis l’universialtion de l’interconnexion)

Relation to my thesis: Elements to form an argumentation on privacy issues related to my research domain

Back from La Ciudad Híbrida

Posted: May 19th, 2009 | No Comments »

Last week I participated to the workshop “La Ciudad Híbrida” organized in Sevilla by José Luis de Vicente. The first 2 days, we used different theoretical lenses and practical references to explore the many different aspects of the hybrid city. Juan Freire engaged us with proposals for a participatory urbanism with the design of open processes and bottom-up solutions (see De la ciudad híbrida al urbanismo P2P: democracia 2.0, gestión local participativa y crowdsourcing). José Luis de Vicente stepped back and led us through the history influenced by urban theorist, architects and artist that have paved the way to the hybrid city of the 21st century, the dynamic city (see Una historia de la ciudad de software: arquitecturas dinamicas y sistemas digitales urbanos). An argumentation completed by Juan Martín Prada who covered the rich field of location media with a philosophic spin (co-existance men-thinks, men-animals, men-deads, the urbanization of the real-time city (networked city) vs. desurbanization of the real-space; the “Here” being replaced by the permanant “Now”.

Before Juan Martin, I played the role of “data cowboy” with a 90min talk (in Spanish) that looked at the contemporary hybrid city through the lenses of my research work augmented by some offline observations. In this intervention entitled “People as sensors; people as actors” (slides with annotations, video), I look at the integration of ubiquitous technologies (and soft infrastructures) and how they afford us new flexibility in conducting our daily activities with simultaneously providing the means to study our activities in time and space.

Picture 2-1

The other part of the workshop was dedicated to more hands-on activities in which groups had to define, sketch and prototype a citizen-led system or process that take advantage of open/public urban data. With a majority young architects, the focus was first based on “infrastructure”, “mobility”, “space”, but then rapidly also evolved around social issues and even political touching the Critical Cartography approach and critique. There was a lot to learn from the languages employed by participants with different practices (architects, social scientist, biologist, artist).

Finally, Sevilla provided an excellent context to ponder the hybrid city of the present. In addition to its rich history of mixed cultures, architectures and art, engineering work and south-european clichés, the city offers the vestiges of the techno-utopian Expo ’92. The crumbling infrastructure at the Cartuja Island is source of fascinating sightseeing with an Ariane V on the loose and a monorail in advanced decomposition among other things. The theme for the Expo was “The Age of Discovery”. mmhmm.

hybrid city
Sevilla, a true hybrid city….

urban furniture
…with its real urban furnitures

Thanks José Luis for the invitation!

BiCi_N Urban CT-SCAN

Posted: May 5th, 2009 | No Comments »

An Amsterdam in Real Time or CopenCycle with a qualitative spin, Martha Skinner proposed BiCi_N Urban CT-SCAN a project based on the GPS tracks and video footage collected by Bicing riders.

Bici N-Bike-As-A-Drawing-Tool-Diagram-1

Bici N Body City Diagram-3-Last1

Relation to my thesis: Bikes used a collecting and drawing tool to view the city from within and from above. This kind of urban cat-scan is similar to the replay tools developped for pervasive game research to analyze players collaboration and interactions from a mix of both quantitative and qualitative views.