City as Operating System


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Slides from the talk I gave at the Nerve Centre in Liverpool on 5th Sept 2010 about the coming trend of urban computing and sensors and how we might engage with and enhance it.

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  • Technology is continuing to seem into the fabric of the city. The most obvious is the proliferation of CCTV cameras, but there are also all sorts of traffic sensors, weather stations and air pollution monitoring posts. More and more data is being gathered by councils, the authorities and companies across the city.
  • We’re also gaining more and more output devices too: The background image is Liverpool University’s Active Learning Lab. It’s cladding the entire building and they can do colour fades and address each panel individually. They can even use it as a huge one-line scrolling text display. At present it seems to run through a random colour change pattern cycle, but imagine if it changed colour in relation to the traffic congestion in the city – so if it was red you’d know there was a traffic jam on the M62… The foreground image the huge screen on Lime Street – this particular shot shows some interactive advertising they did on it recently, when Virgin Trains had it showing adverts targetted at particular passer-by
  • Is this the coming Minority Report future? A city that reconfigures itself so that the urban infrastructure advertises to you personally? It doesn’t have to be that way…
  • We can crowdsource the data gathering, with modern GPS-enabled mobile phones allowing people to record information like the FixMyStreet site that Francis spoke about earlier.
  • And people don’t have to explicitly enter the data, we can gather information as a by-product of people going about their lives… mining the twitter exhaust, or pulling in anonymised data from mobile phone movements to show traffic congestion
  • We can also build our own sensors. Arduino, a cheap and open-source project to make it easy for people to hook electronics (and therefore all manner of sensors) up to computers and the Internet. There’s also a huge community of people using the Arduino and sharing circuit diagrams and code. Then websites like make it easy to push that data out onto the web and to hook it up to other outputs. The graphs on the right are from a project I’ve done recently with FACT in the centre of town. They’ve got a roof terrace with a garden on it, and we’ve added some sensors to monitor temperature, light levels, air quality and the moisture level in the soil. The sensors are connected to an Arduino which publishes the info on Pachube. Those graphs show the last four days of readings from a couple of hours ago when I was putting these slides together. And all that’s done in around £80 of parts.
  • The final way of getting access to this data is through the Open Data movement: persuading the councils and companies who gather the information on our behalf to make the data available. Then we can build things like the Mapumental app which is shown in the background (and was built by Francis Irving, who spoke earlier). It shows travel times on public transport if you’re trying to commute to the Dept of Transport office in the centre of London. Some other examples of useful sites like that are the Planning Alerts site to tell you when planning permission is sought near your home, or which provides a more accessible and useful version of the train timetables.
  • What is the city for? - “The city is a machine for creating serendipity” I can’t quite remember who it was who said this – it was either Tom Coates or Adam Greenfield, and I haven’t been able to track the tweet down. That’s an important feature of cities. They’re where lots of people rub up against each other in their daily lives. You bump into people, make connections that might not otherwise get made. It’s about the opportunities to drop into an old shop and meet some people and hear a few talks. Here are a couple of the ways that I use new technologies to help that sort of process: - Twitter helps me keep in touch with what's happening across the city.  Through it I was alerted to the "Blame Tesco" graffito, and there's been further discussion (though sadly not to any useful effect) about Christian's fruit & veg shop - Foursquare lets friends bump into each other.  We met up with some in the Shipping Forecast the other week because they'd spotted one of our party had checked in there.
  • A better life? How can we take advantage of these new technologies to allow us to live a more rewarding existence? A more fun or productive or sustainable life - Air quality sensors feeding through to a citizens alert system for air pollution? - Real time bus information making buses and trains as convenient as cars to improve congestion
  • The challenges: Reconnecting the people - Technology has had a tendency to isolate us and design out the people from the equation - Risk that we'll become a tribe of people staring at small glowing rectangles
  • Tools not Adverts - Need to build tools to help us connect to, enhance, and better use our environment and fellow people - not to distract us from them
  • Unite not divide - The iPhone and Android wielding geeks can already reap a lot of the rewards from the City Operating System - Real rewards will come from working out how to scale those solutions to the rest of us - X-Factor text voting shows there's massive scope for less sexy tech like text or picture messaging
  • Build the tools - Scratch your own itch - Work with the open democracy groups like the ones Francis talks about
  • Spread the word - Promote the ideas of open data - Encourage councils, transport agencies and anyone else with useful data to open it up
  • Join the debate - This has just been one perspective - Issues need to be discussed more widely - Don't abdicate responsibility for the make up of the city to corporations.
  • City as Operating System

    1. 1. The City as Operating System Adrian McEwen
    2. 2. The Instrumented City Adrian McEwen photo:
    3. 3. Adrian McEwen Lime Street screen: City-scale Output Devices
    4. 4. A Minority Report Future? Adrian McEwen photo:
    5. 5. Citizens as Sensors Adrian McEwen photo:
    6. 6. Citizens as Sensors Adrian McEwen photo:
    7. 7. The Internet of Things Adrian McEwen Air Quality Ozone Light Temperature
    8. 8. Open Data Adrian McEwen
    9. 9. “ The city is a machine for creating serendipity” Adrian McEwen
    10. 10. A Better Life? Adrian McEwen
    11. 11. Challenges: Reconnecting the People Adrian McEwen photo:
    12. 12. Challenges: Tools, not Adverts Adrian McEwen photo:
    13. 13. Challenges: Unite, Don't Divide Adrian McEwen
    14. 14. How Do We Get There? Build the Tools Adrian McEwen
    15. 15. How Do We Get There? Spread the Word Adrian McEwen
    16. 16. How Do We Get There? Join the Debate Adrian McEwen