Making Sense of SENSEable Cities

By Steve Hamm

IBM isn’t the only organization that thinks cities could be a lot “smarter.” For six years, students and faculty members at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab have been investigating the potential for digital technologies to improve the experience of living in cities. They’ve completed dozens of projects around the world. The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit in San Francisco focused on the intersection of digital art and social progress, recently opened a show, senseable cities, highlighting 15 of the Lab’s projects. Very cool stuff.

The concept behind these projects is simple. Gather data about city life from a wide variety of sources, crunch it, and display it in visual forms–so it has maximum impact. One of the projects, Trash Track, uses cellular GPS tags attached to a variety of different kinds of refuse to follow its path from the dumpster to its ultimate resting place. Another, Copenhagen Wheel, captures traffic and pollution data gathered from bicycles. A third, Real Time Rome, uses mobile phone use patterns to show the movement of people after sporting events in the city.

I saw the show last week along with a handful of IBMers and creative agency colleagues. Our guide was Peter Hirshberg, a former Apple executive and serial entrepreneur who is on the foundation’s board of directors. He told us that bringing together data, analysis, and visualization “puts the science back in social science. You can begin acting on this stuff.”

One of the most empowering aspects of the projects is that citizens don’t just see their world mapped out in new ways, they participate in the mapping–which increases their commitment to making change happen in their communities.

The Gray Area gallery is located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the city’s longtime Red Light district–a gritty area with a high poverty rate and a lot of homeless people. In fact, the gallery is housed in a former porn video parlor, and still has the funky “Arts Theatres” marquee out front.

One of the foundation’s goals is to improve the neighborhood. In connection with the senseable cities show, it teamed with a local public television station (KQED) and other community organizations to sponsor an event called CITYCENTERED, a symposium, workshops, and neighborhood walk aimed at getting people engaged in the community. One piece, for example, Urban Remix, was a participatory media project that uses mobile phones as a platform for capturing the sounds and images of city neighborhoods–useful for documenting noise pollution and other obnoxious messes.

For people like me, who love cities but wish they were a bit more livable, this stuff is exciting. If you want to learn more or get involved, the show runs until Aug. 11 at the Gray Area gallery, 55 Taylor Street. But if you can’t see the show there, it will be traveling to San Jose and Amsterdam later this year and to New York, Tokyo, and other places next year.