Two Approaches to Urban Sensing — Synoptic vs. Ground Truth (Pt. 1)

Over the next year, my research is focused on assessing the recent boom in new academic groups that seek to study cities through the collection and analysis of vast, new (some might call “big”!) data. These include: new schools within existing universities, like NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP); joint research efforts between national labs and universities, like the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data (UCCD), which is a partnership with Argonne National Lab (which grew out of the Manhattan Project); and collaborate industry-university ventures like Intel’s Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cites (ICRI) which sits at Imperial College and University College London.

I’m just getting started but I’m already starting to discover some interesting contrasts between how these groups approach the deployment of new sensor infrastructure — or “instrumentation” as the physical scientists among these new researchers tend to call it—to collect novel data about cities, as opposed to harvesting exhaust data from government records or private sector operations (e.g. cellular network data that has spawned dozens of studies on mobility).

Let’s start with CUSP, since its the oldest and largest of the three groups I identified above. CUSP’s main sensor project is the “Urban Observatory”. For now, the Urban Observatory is limited to a single 8-megapixel camera mounted atop the Metrotech office complex in downtown Brooklyn where CUSP is located. Every ten seconds, the camera takes a photograph of the Manhattan skyline. In the future, CUSP researchers plan to expand the apparatus with a multi-spectral array of instruments — infrared, ultraviolet, etc.

The simultaneous collection of data about the millions of people potentially captured in the device’s field of vision creates a hornet’s nest of privacy issues, there is considerable social value in this research — the tool is sensitive enough to identify the unique light pattern of television programs being watched in individual apartments. As a precaution, CUSP downsamples the resolution of video footage collected before storing and analyzing it.

But while such concerns are clearly justified, the widespread use of “synoptic urban sensing” — as CUSP director Steve Koonin describes it—could have enormous social benefits. The data collected by the Urban Observatory could be used to measure heat loss and other energy performance characteristics of buildings more quickly and inexpensively, and in more detail than ever before possible. It could be an indispensable tool to meet the city’s ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

I do not envy those who will have to weigh this balance.

A synoptic image of the Manhattan skyline captured by CUSP’s Urban Observatory processed to isolate emissions plumes from large buildings. (Source: Crain’s New York Business)

The urge to observe the whole city in its full excruciating detail — synoptically — that’s evident in CUSP and Koonin’s work isn’t new. In fact, its one of the oldest ideas in city planning. One of the pioneers of modern urban planning, Patrick Geddes advocated large-scale data collection and landscape visualization as a scientific tool for understanding cities (and who was, trained as an evolutionary biologist, himself an outsider to the existing community of urban reformers). And Geddes traced the urge back to Aristotle in his 1915 treatise Cities In Evolution:

“[Aristotle] urged that our view be truly synoptic, a word which had not then become abstract, but was vividly concrete, as its make-up shows : a seeing of the city, and this as a whole ; like Athens from its Acropolis, like city and Acropolis together the real Athens from Lycabettos and from Piraeus, from hill-top and from sea. Large views in the abstract, Aristotle knew and thus compressedly said, depend upon large views in the concrete.”

At CUSP, the collection of data is decidedly big, markedly invasive, and intended primarily for researchers and their partners in government to make plans and make policy behind closed doors. It’s a moon shot — with huge potential payoff, but tremendous risks and unintended consequences.

Next week, I’ll look at Chicago’s UCCD — led by computer scientist Charle Catlett—which is taking an almost opposite approach to the instrumentation of the Windy City with its Array of Things project.