The sensorized city

Sidewalk Labs, the company created by Alphabet to manage smart cities infrastructure, is taking part in the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, and has come up with a design for a free WiFi kiosk similar to those already on the streets of New York. The three-meter-high structure has advertising panels, free gigabit WiFi access, free national calls, USB chargers for cellphones, a keyboard and a touch screen, all at wheelchair user height, along with an emergency button.

New Yorkers have taken the 200 or so LinkNYC units installed in their city, each of which generates around $30,000 a year in advertising revenue.

But for the winning city, Columbus, Ohio, the company is offering to include features not available on the New York model that fall into four main categories:

  1. Environmental: humidity, air pressure, temperature
  2. Pollution: particle concentration, ozone levels, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, etc.
  3. Natural and man-made behavior: vibrations from vehicles, magnetic fields, sound levels, and infrared, visible and ultraviolet light.
  4. City activity: anonymized sightings of wireless devices (probably via Wi-Fi) and a video camera watching the kiosk’s surroundings.

These kinds of kiosks could provide a much wider range of information, from detecting abandoned objects that could be bombs, to generating data that could help create an ecosystem that would encourage startups providing smart city services.

Google says it will use measurements of smartphones as well as video footage of people and traffic to provide information on traffic density, which in turn would be fed into Google maps. City authorities would be able to gather huge amounts of environmental information that would allow them to estimate activity and wellbeing metrics, as well as to monitor traffic or parking restrictions. The kiosks could also be used as cellphone nodes, as well as connecting with internet of things devices.

Google says that all data would be gathered anonymously, encrypted for storage and not shared with any third party, including Alphabet companies. In the case of New York, where the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a privacy complaint about cameras installed in the kiosks, the company says that they have yet to be used, and that in any event, would not be used to collect information that could lead to the identity of individuals.

Furthermore, the company will provide the kiosks free of charge, although city authorities would pay for the $12,900 installation costs, the $15,000 for connecting them to the internet via fiber-optics, as well as contributing $5,000 to a repair and update fund. Aside from these one-off payments, the annual running costs for each kiosk is around $1,440 for maintenance, $2,400 in electricity and $8,400 on broadband. Estimates for the first year of installing 100 kiosks would be around $4.5 million. If the city authorities want to finance them through advertising on side panels, Google is prepared to install two 55 inch screens at a cost of $23,000, and would sell and provide advertisements, with each screen bringing in around $60,000, which would provide a total of around $3 million, meaning costs would be covered in less than two years.

This is basically a new twist to the old debate about municipal WiFi updated to an age in which connectivity offers more opportunities than ever. These kiosks can be seen as a latter-day version of the telephone booths of yore. They certainly have a role to play, and we can only hope that city halls around the world see their utility.

(En español, aquí)

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