Sensing “Summer in the City”?

Margaret Rhodes comments in about “Adorable Concept Sensors Track the True Onset of Summer”. Design students Johanna Pichlbauer and Mia Meusburger of University of Applied Arts in Vienna are interested in sensors to report “the emotional potential of a city”.

In their video they show concepts for sensors that “catch the summery vibes of their city”.

OK, I get it that most of the “smart city” design is really boring (if not downright anti-human) stuff, like traffic control and other infrastructure management. “Optimize” the machine that is the city, and all that. Ick.

Therefore, tt is interesting to think about how to understand the human experience of the city, and how sensors might contribute to that. And this project did make me think.

But honestly, I think this specific project is really going the wrong way, at least as far as engineering is concerned.

First of all, we don’t actually need to detect “the onset of summer”, people are already doing that just fine. More to the point, if I really need to discover that people are feeling “summer vibes”, I think it would make more sense to analyze social media than to fiddle around with indirect correlative measures. Big data, and all that. I’m pretty certain that I could detect “summer vibes” in people’s text and image streams.

Second, the sensor designs, which may be “adorable”, look archaic to me. Or maybe like toys. They are large, heavy, and intrusive. They have trivial functions, especially for the unit size. We could do the same thing with tiny insectoid drones or piggybacked on smart phones.

For that matter, much of the data collected is actually available, or could be available, from the existing infrastructure. Why build special sensors when you could just mash up existing data streams?

Why do you need a floating sensor in the pool to measure water quality? The filtering system already measures that, so you just need to get the data out. Ditto for air quality, pollen counts, the traffic at an ice cream counter, and so on. If you want to know when the window of the bus is open, then put a sensor on the window, for crying out loud. Measuring the air stream is not the right idea.

Let’s set aside the specific sensor design and think about the overall concept. What kind of “emotional” state would you want to detect, and what would it mean? “Summer vides” and other seasonal things are pretty coarse-grained, and have little “actionable” potential. Is there something I would do differently before or after “summer vibes” kick in? Anything that I need a digital detector to trigger, that is.

In fact, there is plenty of other work about detecting social and emotional trends via social media and search behavior that already go much farther than “summer vibes”, purporting to notice and predict social upheavals and other potentially important things. There is also lots of work to understand the state of the city from mobile phone data, especially location tracking which can be extremely precise and timely.

So the big question is, is there something interesting to be discovered by “emotion” sensors, something more than other analytics already give us? I don’t know, though it’s not a stupid question to ask.

And is there any advantage to deploying “adorable”, toy like, platforms rather than invisible infrastructure? Again, I don’t know. Certainly, there is something to be said by visible sensors, rather than secretly snooping. Also, attractive and non-threatening sensors might make people happier and less likely to vandalize them—provided we believe they are harmless and have not been hijacked.

Bottom line: I give this group credit for making me think a bit, even if my engineering instincts find many flaws with the demonstration pieces.


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