Portland, Oregon, has partnered with Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs to roll out a new mobile data collection service, with the goal of tracking how people move through the city. Through Replica, Sidewalk Labs’ program that can aggregate de-identified location data from cellphones and turn it into a “digital map,” Portland will be able to more accurately track public transportation demand and the various ways in which people are getting around. According to GeekWire, the year-long pilot, which has been somewhat under the radar until this point, will cost the city of Portland $457,000. Replica works by first hoovering up de-identified location data from mobile apps, location data aggregators, and telecommunication companies, which sell location data. Using that information, combined with demographic data, Replica can create what Sidewalk Labs calls a “synthetic population” that can be used to model how real people move through any given area. The model is then calibrated against on-the-ground observations for accuracy. A new Replica model is generated every three months to show the impact of new policies and infrastructure on movement patterns. The use of Replica in Portland will be overseen by TriMet, the agency that operates mass transit in the Portland metropolitan area, the Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, and the Portland Metro. Portland’s City Council approved the use of Replica last December, but the program won’t be put in place until Sidewalk Labs provides a model derived from Replica in July that passes the bar set by all three agencies. The initial data aggregation for Replica has already begun, so that Sidewalk Labs can build its initial test population. If the Replica program is approved, the city hopes to use the data provided to measure the usage of bike lanes and public transportation, what impact for-hire vehicles are having on traffic congestion, what areas of the city are underserved transportation-wise, and what facilities are needed in public parks. Because Replica recreates commuting paths, the city would be able to track work commutes as well as where people gather during their free time, providing urban planners with an estimate of what’s actually being used. Replica has the added advantage of providing this information without the need to build surveillance cameras or take surveys, as smartphones are ubiquitous. Of course, privacy advocates have raised concerns over whether the data would truly be anonymous, and who would have access to it, concerns also raised over Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside development in Toronto. Portland has pledged that only the three aforementioned agencies would be able to use the information generated by Replica, but even they won’t have access to the entire dataset, only data returned via filtered queries. Sidewalk Labs is reportedly looking to test Replica in Kansas City and Chicago as well.
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Concerns about data privacy continue to dog the “smart city” planned for the Toronto waterfront by Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs. But it isn’t just residents and watchdog groups raising the alarm—consultants and advisors to the project are also jumping ship. The latest to leave is Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert whose resignation was intended as a “strong statement” about the project's data protection issues. Announced last year, Quayside, as the neighborhood development is called, has from the beginning been envisioned as a district run on data and tech, and is the largest urban development of its kind in North America. A layer of sensors embedded in the city would control traffic systems, monitor air pollution, automate garbage collection, transport residents, and much more. In response to concerns about how it would protect the data, Sidewalk Labs just last week proposed that it should be managed by an independent data trust, according to a new data governance proposal. But this is far from enough for privacy experts like Cavoukian. “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” she wrote in her resignation letter. Cavoukian’s guidelines center around Privacy by Design principles, which incorporate privacy protection in every step of a project’s engineering process, a condition that she said Sidewalk Labs had also committed to. However, Cavoukian said she realized last week that the data gathered in Quayside, instead of being wiped and unidentifiable, would be available to third parties who would not be beholden to the privacy commitment made by Sidewalk Labs. The Alphabet company, for its part, released a statement that essentially said its hands were tied: "It became clear that Sidewalk Labs would play a more limited role in near-term discussions about a data governance framework at Quayside." With Cavoukian's resignation, she joins Saadia Muzaffar, founder of Tech Girls Canada, who stepped down earlier this month from the project's digital strategy advisory panel due to what she called a lack of transparency and public information about its data protection measures. As Muzaffar wrote in her own letter of resignation: "The most recent roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure. Time was spent instead talking about buildings made out of wood and the width of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire process.” The final plan for the tech-driven district will be released next year.
Save for the extreme examples—Beijing's “airpocalypse,” for example—air pollution is often an invisible problem. For at least a brief period, designers from Brooklyn and data scientists from San Francisco hope to change that in Louisville, Kentucky. Across the city 25 sensors gather data on air quality, including the concentrations of particulate matter and carbon monoxide, transmitting the data to a colorful, interactive kiosk on the corner of Fourth and Liberty streets in Downtown Louisville. Designers at Brooklyn-based Urban Matter, Inc. dubbed their project Air Bare. As the downtown screen displays real-time air quality data, they invite passersby to engage with the installation. Encased in bright orange, powder-coated steel, a video screen fills with bubbles representing particles of air pollution. Poke your head into the display and you can pop the bubbles, earning points and taking air quality quizzes. Urban Matter's Rick Lin told WFPL the playfulness is meant to inspire action:
A big part of the component of this piece is educational, so once we grab people’s attention, we want—without being too preachy—to give them some information to help them make better decisions every day.Urban Matter conceived the short-term piece with the Office of Civic Innovation, Louisville Metro Government, and San Francisco's Creative Commons. On their website, the firm said they hope the project “creates awareness, identifies sources of pollution and propels the public to take action.” Open in time for a health symposium attended by Prince Charles, the piece will be up for six to eight months.