I have seen the future of urban life

Every rock critic and critic wannabe – and trust me, there are a great many more of the latter – is familiar with that famous moment in 1974 when Rolling Stone‘s Jon Landau breathlessly proclaimed that he’d seen “rock and roll’s future.” (Unfortunately for Landau’s credibility, the sentence ends “…and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”)

After something I saw last night, I now know just how Landau felt. And you know what? I bet I’m a lot righter than he turned out to be.

What I saw was this. It’s a visualization tool called Citysense, the product of SoHo-based startup Sense Networks. Sense Networks’ hyper-enthusiastic CEO Greg Skibiski spent about an hour walking me through Citysense, and the overall impression I was left with was that the future so many of us have been talking about for so long has all of a sudden arrived in the form of a live, running, working application.

What Citysense does is simple, yet profound. It gathers real-time positional fixes from mobile devices (so far, naturally, for San Francisco only), aggregates them and plots them on a map that is itself then pushed back to the mobile device. The result is a live “heat map” of human activity, displaying specifically which parts of the city people tend to use, and when. In a dreamy rhythmscape designed as if to give Henri Lefebvre a posthumous boner, you can see surges of activity washing over the city just like an algal bloom across the surface of a lake: morning commute, lunch break, quittin’ time, supper and the dispersal home (followed by a discrete, if just possibly indiscreet, coda of after-hours clubbing). It’s a textbook illustration of my dictum that nothing is as interesting as information about place in that place, delivered in such a way that it can be acted upon.

So far, so good…so what, right? You might imagine that such tidbits are of interest solely to geowankers, traffic engineers, outdoor-advertising brokers, and the kind of consultants that get called in to help decide where to drop the next Starbucks or Rite Aid. But here’s where things begin to get interesting, because anyone familiar with the whole rhetoric of “reality mining” that’s emerged from MIT’s Media Lab over the last few years will be comfortable with the idea that macro-level social and behavioral inferences can be derived from data of this sort. (This is not at all coincidental: Media Lab mining maven Sandy Pentland is a co-founder of Sense Networks.)

The use case that Citysense comes bundled with in this first iteration is, frankly, just a little bit silly; the idea is that you’d plan your evenings around the emergent nodal points, clicking through hot spots to the Yelp listing associated with each, or the relevant Google Street View. Just how many nights, though, am I going to be sitting at home at ten o’clock, wanting to hit the town but needing a mobile application to tell me where the action is? (And doesn’t any self-respecting 24-hour party person already just know, anyway?)

So where the promotional materials bill Citysense as “an innovative mobile application for local nightlife discovery,” and it’s currently saddled with the tagline “Live San Francisco Nightlife Activity,” it is clearly capable of so much more than that. The find-the-party scenario is pretty transparently just something to prime the pump, a stalking horse for all of the far more interesting things that people will figure out what to do with it.

For example, one of the first things that drops out of the Citysense data is a statistically strongly significant degree of correlation between certain populations and specified locations in the city – in effect, the existence of self-selected “tribes” defined entirely by their behavior in space and time (Skibiski’s word, and one whose resonances I’m not entirely happy with). When you have access to additional information characterizing these locations – you know: is this a sportsbar or a leather bar? a Muni Metro stop or a parking lot? the Zeitgeist or the Top of the Mark? the drunk tank or the emergency room? – well, then, it seems to me that you have the beginnings of a concordance to the city. You can begin to make proactive decisions about how to make best use of the urban manifold.

I don’t want to let go of any of the ethical or practical reservations I have about such inferences and actions taken upon them. For one thing, the mapping fails to account for the possibility of differential uses of space along the z-axis, treating it as merely a programmatic extrusion of the ground plane. And I particularly worry about creating spatiotemporal and experiential echo chambers worse than any political blog, in which nobody armed with Citysense or equivalent ever needs to confront the existence of anyone, -where or -thing not pre-vetted as being inside the user’s comfort zone.

Nevertheless, it is transparently self-evident to me that this is the way we’re going to do cities from here on out. And if you don’t think that’s pretty dang novel, just imagine what it’s going to be like when the spaces in question are themselves provided with APIs that pull usage data from Citysense and reflect it in some state of their presentation to the world – then the crazy feedback-loop urbanism really begins.

I’m seeing a big LED signboard tacked across the front of Zeitgeist’s doorway: “Garden now at 23% above threshold. Get your Tamale Lady orders in now!” And if that isn’t the future of cities, then I don’t know what is.

18 responses to “I have seen the future of urban life”

  1. john@pm says :

    Ah, I was having some similar thoughts about Citysense yesterday. I also think it will be exciting to see how which uses of this service become popular. I think it’s good you noted that it’s basically (but not merely) a visualization tool. People seem to be lumping it in with other mobile social networks, which I doesn’t seem to be reading over their description of how it all works. I’m going to post a little about it on primitivemachine.net along with something from information aesthetics that I can’t remember now.


  2. david says :

    Great post, but why knock the Boss?

  3. Andrew says :

    So, so apt:

    “Cause you know, yes you know
    Oh how you know
    When you’re standing in the middle of a crowd and you feel so alone
    The party’s over, it’s time to go home”

    And if you didn’t know before, CitySense is going to make sure you know.

    More seriously, one thing about a concept like this is that the feedback loop is so broke: it’s not telling me about “activity in the city”, it’s telling me about “activity in the city by people with software like mine.” As ever, it’s not “tribes defined by behavior” but “tribes defined by shared purchases of similar mobile hardware and software.” That’s just dull.

  4. dan reetz says :

    Eagerly anticipating the version displaying heat maps of law enforcement activity — perhaps Trakit AVL integration could accomplish that. Not so eager to see it pulsing on every dash-mounted Toughbook.

  5. Mike W. says :

    That’s great but meanwhile John Robb over at Global Guerillas [ http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/06/journal-cloud-p.html ] is seeing in Citysense the opportunity for action via Air Force micro-UAVs, not to mention expansion of the “DIY weapons space”. What may appear as a fun nightclub from one p.o.v. is instead a glowing infrared target to others…

  6. Benedikt says :

    Good post!

    And after reading Citysense’s privacy policy my first doubts did not substantiate.

    Still – the possibility is there. And as discussed e.g. here and here, there always are serious issues, when the system is not transparent and opt-in.

    However: we all know that we can be tracked when we carry our mobiles around. And as we are being tracked by humans the possibility that data is being shared and misused remains. I’m hopeful that the value added by having a device that knows where I am (all things location-based) and the possible outcomes of analysing this data (let the city know, that this bus is way too crowded every morning), will be bigger than than the shortcomings of possible data misuse.

    A bit of self promotion at the end: a related post on my blog. More related to traffic patterns and opportunities of LBS than reality mining though.

  7. asktonyc says :

    Citysense can be used as a hammer; to create, or to destroy. I suspect it will be used by different groups for both purposes.

  8. Scott Boone says :

    A couple of initial (perhaps obvious) thoughts:

    First, how easy/efficient/affordable would it be to “game” this system? If it becomes effective for its advertised purpose, could nightclub owners game the system with cheap mobile devices? I don’t know whether to characterize this potential gaming of the system as another type of feedback or as another type of authenticity problem (or maybe they’re the same thing). Perhaps people gaming the system will be the system “has arrived.”

    Second, it seems like the usefulness of this system will be vastly increased by correlating the real time data with old data such that one can pull increasingly complex conclusions from the data over time. Creating profiles of individual sources to build a more detailed picture of the overall scene is a possibility. (“Hmmm, people who have gone to see this type of band in the past are grouping in a particular location. Maybe there’s a similar band playing there tonight.”) Another possibility would be filtering out an average pattern to detect something new.

    Just imagine what google would do with that sort of data.

  9. Scott Boone says :

    Perhaps people gaming the system will be THE SIGN THAT the system “has arrived.”

    I lose at proofreading.

  10. Larry Irons says :

    I don’t want to let go of any of the ethical or practical reservations I have about such inferences and actions taken upon them. For one thing, the mapping fails to account for the possibility of differential uses of space along the z-axis, treating it as merely a programmatic extrusion of the ground plane.”

    Adam, there are all kinds of reasons for thinking that such attempts to define and operationalize the user out of the situation, regardless of questionable claims to “reality mining,” can only fail…

  11. Christopher Fahey says :

    I’m disturbed that now I have to constantly double check if we are talking about the Local Bike Shop or Location Based Services.

  12. AG says :

    Scott, I think you’ve got it. Certainly the second of the two points you raise is something that the Sense Networks folks, at least, are acutely aware of.

    The gaming-data-with-cheap-devices scenario, on the other hand, is something I bet they haven’t thought of. (One of the things about visualizations that gives me pause is that people tend to have such touching faith in “the data” once it’s been transformed into a graphic representation.)

  13. alex B says :

    YES! When I saw this, I almost exploded. Probably the most interesting/useful/complex new LBS venture. And Gregg is awesome.

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