Smart Cities, Big Data, and Privacy

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Jane Wakefield at the BBC reports that Big Data is being used in previously unthought-of ways. For example, the Advanced Computing Center at the University of Vermont is measuring both happiness and health of 180,000 people in the U.S.  The Hedonometer project used 37 million geolocated tweets from people across the U.S. It found that people were happiest when they were away from home, but also found the words “starving” and “heartburn” were written much more frequently in cities with a high percentage of obese citizens. Chris Danforth one of the project leaders said: “Cities looking to understand changes in the behavior of their citizens, for example to locate ads for public health programs, can look to social media for real-time information.”

The deluge of Big Data is everywhere. Each jet engine on a flight from London to New York generates 20 TB of data per hour. In 2013 Internet data will amount to 1,000 exabytes. Every day 2.5 additional exabytes of data are created. 90% of the data in the world has been created in the last two years. 100,000 tweets are sent globally every minute. In 2010 Erich Schmidt of Google noted that all the data collected since the beginning of humanity until 2003, is equal to the volume now produced every two days.

Computing power has become so cheap, and networks so pervasive, that we can now measure and report on anything. Sensors in cities as different as London, Seattle, Birmingham, and Singapore are now used to measure where water pipes are leaking, whether buildings are using energy efficiently, micro-climatic weather reporting down to a few blocks, and what is happening to plastic disposable bottles.

Architect and urban planner Professor Mike Batty predicted in 1997 that by 2050 everything around us would be some form of computer. It would appear that this will become reality much sooner. We are already interacting with our cities, via text messages that offer a 20% discount off a shop one walks past, or location sensing applications that tell us about the nearest coffee shop. “My phone knows that I normally work until 17:30 and knows the next bus I should catch before I even ask it. It is beginning to predict my life,” said Andrew Hudson-Smith, who heads University College of London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis.

We do need to think about how we want tomorrow’s society to work but it is a bigger discussion than just smart cities,” said Carlo Ratti, Director of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT. “We are basically building a digital copy of our physical world and that is having profound consequences.”

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