Assaf Biderman on Creating SENSEable Cities (Podcast)

TreeHugger: When you open up your mind and you think about the greatest potential of this approach and what it can do for cities, what do you see?

Biderman: The point of cities is very important. As we move more toward an urbanized form of inhabiting this planet, we need to address how to make cities more livable, more efficient, to diminish their negative impact on the environment. And there's a lot we could do now with the integration of digital devices and connectivity into the built environment.

If we think about something like the Internet, one of the things that allowed value creation to explode on the Internet was the introduction of open APIs. You could create mash-ups, grab content from one provider, combine it with content from another provider, and offer something new.

Think of a physical environment where objects and networks and people emit realtime data streams. What if you had something that can allow this data to connect, to be combined with other types of data.

So now we're talking about something like an open API for the city where third parties can write the apps that actually activate our physical space. The Copenhagen Wheel, for example, all the data that is collected on the wheel is put on open API so that people could write their own apps.

This opens the door for much greater innovation in the urban space and much greater participation on behalf of citizens. So you can take greater part in the maintenance and monitoring of the physical environment around you. Also it opens up new possible business models.

The role of government is probably also impacted. For example, the mayor would not necessarily need to decide where the bus routes go, but just design the right parameters for asking the private sector to actually take part in such a process. In creating bus routes, for example, or in telling the garbage trucks where to go.

So relationship between person and government changes, our capacity to intervene and make a difference increases and new possible business models open up. I think this is a really exciting future when we think about such a city.

TH: Knowing where everything and everyone is all the time makes me wonder if there are privacy issues here. Do you foresee that?

Biderman: In our projects we haven't encountered any privacy issues before because we've always used aggregated and anonymized data. Think about tracking trash-you're not really tracking people. Think about the Copenhagen Wheel-if you want, you can share data with your friends, similar to how you already do on Foursquare or Facebook today.

If you think about the city I was describing earlier, it's really a bottom-up organization where people decide to participate, whether it's a company, government entity, or private individual. It can really plug in and organize and synchronize systems, rather than a top-down monitoring or supervision.

There is a risk there, when you enable a new technology, for things to be misused. But as I see it, this is a way to take this data and hand it over to the people so that we can start to make better use of it. We can decide how it's used. We can make decisions in a smarter way.

So I don't think this is a black Orwellian future in that respect at all.

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