Monday, May 20, 2013

Wiring the future

The Boston Globe for May 19 had an interesting article in the Ideas section, "The Too-Smart City" by Courtney Humphries, in print at pp . K1, 4-5. The article looks at the amazing new ideas that city planners and technologists are coming up with, sometimes without much public debate, for making cities work smoother and smarter.  Some are better known than others, such as the multiple cameras that are being installed in many cities to monitor for criminal activity or watch for those who run red lights, or fail to pay tolls. Others are less well known.

The entire article gave me such mixed feelings, because some of the ideas, such as the lead-off technology, a system to help maximize and ease parking, sound like a WOW! and very seductive sort of thing.  A Boston University professor is testing a technology that helps drivers locate the best parking spot for their purposes in a parking garage at the university.  The system uses a smart phone app to sense when a spot is opening at the optimal location for that driver and alert the person.  Oooh!  Hard to complain about that, it seems. Lots of the technology in the article is designed to make life in cities more efficient, easier, and more convenient. Much of it is designed to make things safer, and easier to manage for the city administrators.

But the rest of the article gives the reader an increasing sense of Big Brother unease, as one reads about cameras, data gathering and storage that one never knew about, and that really wasn't debated. There are issues about First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, though the article does not discuss this in legal terms. There are also problems in terms of sharing data with third parties and protecting the data from hackers.

There are multiple levels of other problems, too, as the author brings up the issue of cities that purchase proprietary software from corporations, for systems on which the city relies:
1)  Without open access to the code, the city becomes completely reliant on the corporation that wrote the code. If the company suddenly increases the subscription fees, the city is trapped. 
2) Or if the company goes bankrupt, there is nobody to update and manage the code. (Does these sound familiar, librarians?)
3) The author also raises the issue, when a city relies on coders to create an algorithm to analyze criminal hotspots, for instance, there is real policy-making being done by that coder.  People need to realize that and ask for the algorithm involved to understand the assumptions being coded into the program.

This is a very interesting article, and I recommend you read it.  One thing that struck me. The author is assuming that crowd-sourcing or at least open discussion, is better for policy-making.  One thing that I have learned about the development of the Internet, is that the technologists who built it actually did a GREAT job of securing the system against the sorts of control that government figures are just now wanting to impose. The very infrastructure of the Internet makes centralized government control and monitoring very difficult.  If it had been set up with the input of the crowd, or planning by governments, the Internet would be a much different place. It makes me have mixed feelings about this author's assumptions that opening these policies up for group discussion is going to be a positive improvement.  I am not sure I like the decision-making as it is; I am just becoming more skeptical about democracy and the wisdom of crowds, I guess.

The decoration is a still from the movie 1984, and of course, Big Brother is watching you!  I am afraid I found the image at

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