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A city run by data

Posted by Sarah Laskow  October 29, 2012 11:32 AM

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Steven Koonin is a theoretical physicist who has been a top science official at both BP and the Department of Energy. Now, he wants to turn cities into data-collection devices. At a New America Foundation event last week, Koonin - in his new job as director of the new Center for Urban Science and Progress at NYU - riled the audience a bit when he suggested that Manhattan shoppers should use only debit and credit cards, or that drivers entering the city be required to have a GPS device. He was thinking of the wealth of data he'd could mine about consumption and traffic patterns, but:

“You can feel the 1984 vibe,” [moderator David] Biello said as people in the standing-room-only audience murmured. But Koonin stressed that individual privacy will be respected from the outset of any such initiatives. Furthermore, he emphasized, companies already have much of that information. At least government would put it to good use.

That does depend on what one considers "good use." Traffic data has long been used in road design, and some police departments are already trying to use data to help them deploy officers most efficiently. But some people are already starting to worry about a city shaped by numbers. As Kevin Slavin, an entrepreneur whose addictive game company Area/Code is now Zynga New York, put it last year at the Lift conference, which focuses on social implications of innovation: "Buildings and cities are structurally changing around the needs of a bunch of algorithms that have no agenda that would be of much correlation to anything you may happen to be doing in that space."

What does an algorithm’s city look like? Inspired by Slavin's ideas, designer Charlie Behrens tried to capture a computer's perspective on urban spaces:

You get the sense that he falls on the "this is creepy" side of the argument.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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