Despite the rush of innovation in recent years, cities are often behind the curve. From preparing intersections for autonomous cars to measuring bacteria in the sewers, the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is bringing the latest technology to inform governments and solve urban problems.
The best part? Their research doesn’t appear in long, text-heavy reports in obscure academic journals. Each project is given a catchy name and described on the beautiful Senseable website, complete with interactive visuals for users and other researchers to examine.
In the Underworlds project, for example, MIT researchers built robots that live in the sewers of Cambridge, Massachusetts and measure the types of bacteria present in the sewage. “Smart sewage” may sound farfetched, but it can be quite useful — helping policymakers and health officials predict outbreaks of illnesses and be ready with the right treatments.
“Senseable is as fluent with industry partners as it is with metropolitan governments, individual citizens and disadvantaged communities,” according to the lab’s websitemission statement. “Through design and science, the lab develops and deploys tools to learn about cities — so that cities can learn about us.”
Senseable’s data projects don’t always go as planned — and yet the unexpected insights are often the most interesting.
In 2011, a laptop was stolen from Senseable during a robbery of MIT. Unbeknownst to the thieves, the laptop was part of the Backtalk project, in which laptops were programmed to automatically take pictures from the webcam and report their GPS locations to Senseable.
It made it easy for the police to track the robbers. “When objects talk back to us, they can tell us unexpected stories,” the Senseable team concluded.
Projects at the Senseable lab are helping us better understand our cities, and in doing so, are identifying ways of making them more efficient. Researchers used cellphone data to map commuter patterns, developed a mobile app to identify open street parking spaces in the city and tracked the routes of more than 170 million taxi rides in New York City. Their insights on all three of these projects can directly contribute to reducing traffic congestion.
MIT’s Senseable City Lab is looking globally, too. In the Monitour project, researchers embedded GPS trackers in electronic waste (printers, LCD monitors, etc.) and tracked where they went after they were recycled. Senseable discovered that much of the electronic waste was shipped illegally to China — part of an almost $4 billion illegal market that adversely affects the environment and raises safety concerns about the extraction and disposal of this waste.
Governments need to use big data effectively, or we will all miss out on the benefits. Our cities can be modern hubs of innovation, and projects like those at the Senseable Lab are just the beginning.