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By Susan Crawford

Smartphones can be delivery devices for society's services. For cities, educators, healthcare providers, and everyone else who wants to provide assistance to citizens in a cheaper, more efficient way, making a smartphone app available is a common move. About half of all Americans have smartphones, and all smartphone users keep these devices close at hand. So city managers who want to reach people where they are most likely to pay attention, and who hope to provide information when it's most useful, are planning to use the affordances of smartphones.

These devices are loaded with appealing attributes: bright, arresting screens; programmable ability to download and run apps; Internet access; digital compasses and gyroscopes; cameras; GPS, allowing for delivery of location-based services and geo-tagging of communications by the device's user; accelerometers, allowing tilt and gesture-based functionality; microphones; and ambient light sensors. This month, Samsung launched its Galaxy S4, which has a barometer, thermometer, magnetometer, and hygrometer to measure air pressure, temperature, magnetic field strength, and humidity, respectively.  

Here's the thing: All of these sensors can also be used to gather information about the device's user and the context of that user's use. You can think of a smartphone as a tracking device that happens to allow voice calls. And the user may have no idea (or have forgotten) that this is going on. Cities will need to think hard about the protocols under which they'll gather information using smartphone apps, because the balance between "creepy" and "keeps us safe/delivers good things" is extraordinarily difficult to strike.

Imagine an app that turns on all the microphones in the smartphones in a particular area to track sounds. Useful for finding a lost child; creepy in a business setting. Or imagine an app that automatically turns on the camera in your smartphone when you use that app to hail a cab. Useful for settling disputes, arranging for payment, and putting virtual "eyes on the street"; creepy in almost all other ways – even though Uber is going ahead with that one.

It's tantalizing: Managers could measure the wellbeing of their cities by tracking noise levels, social activity (numbers of texts and calls), changing environmental conditions (humidity, temperature, light levels), and congestion. Cities could use smartphones as distributed sensing systems, which would be useful for traffic management in chaotic conditions (remember those accelerometers) and measuring air quality in areas where asthma is a problem. 

Cities will need to think hard about the protocols under which they'll gather information using smartphone apps, because the balance between "creepy" and "keeps us safe/delivers good things" is extraordinarily difficult to strike.

Imagine the headlines, however; imagine the asymmetries of power that could be created by a city's collection, retention, and use of this information.

Turning citizens' phones into generalized weather stations, with their permission, might be fine; measuring humidity and temperature on an opt-in basis doesn't seem creepy. Perhaps this points towards a principle. Measuring nature: potentially not creepy. Measuring man (sounds, human and machine-made; texts and calls; locations): potentially creepy, even with opt-in permission. People forget that they opted in, after all.

And even experts fail to realize how extensively information can be aggregated, sliced, triangulated, and understood, deep into the future. A recent study showed that individual personality traits can be more reliably predicted by smartphone usage than by personality tests; another study showed that just four data points drawn from "anonymized" phone data can allow identification of a particular individual. (We are all creatures of habit, marking off daily journeys that are highly consistent over long spans of time.) 

The paradox of smartphones is that they are at once the most private of devices and the most potentially communal. They provide the most potential for distributed, efficient access to government resources and enhancement of government services that has ever been contemplated. And their use for the creation and collection of data poses the greatest risks to personal autonomy that we have ever imagined.

About the Author

Susan Crawford

Susan Crawford is a Visiting Professor at the Harvard Law School (2014) and a co-director of the Berkman Center. She is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, and a contributor to Bloomberg View. Her latest book is The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance. She served as Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (2009) and as a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Advisory Council on Technology and Innovation.

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