How smart phones are enabling future cities

Tue, 2013-05-28 11:46 -- Jesse Berst

It was IBM's Rich Michos who first enlightened me to the crucial role smart phones play in the smart city. As he explained in his interview about building a smarter planet one city at a time, smart phones are showing up everywhere on their own, in both the developed and developing worlds. Those ubiquitous smart phones are becoming both a "sensor network" and a "delivery platform."

Now comes Harvard professor Susan Crawford with further explanation. Did you realize that the recently launched Samsung Galaxy S4 has not just a GPS locator, a microphone, a gyroscope, a light sensor, a camera and an accelerometer, but also a barometer, thermometer, magnetometer and hygrometer? "You can think of a smart phone as a tracking device that happens to allow voice calls," she says. Next question: What's the best way for cities to take advantage of these amazing capabilities? -- Jesse Berst, Smart Cities Council Chairman 

Smart phones can be delivery devices for smart services, says Harvard professor Susan Crawford, writing on the university's Data-Smart City Solutions blog. About half of all Americans have smart phones, and all smart phone users keep these devices close at hand. For cities who want to provide assistance to citizens in a cheaper, more efficient way, a smart phone app is a common move. Such an app can reach people where they are most likely to pay attention

What's more, a smart phone's sensors can be used to gather information about the device's user and the context of use. They can become a distributed sensing system to track everything from traffic to temperature to noise to air quality.

All this power and promise comes with potential problems. "Cities will need to think hard about the protocols under which they'll gather information... because the balance between 'creepy' and "keeps us safe; delivers good things' is extraordinarily difficult to strike," she says. "Their use for the creation of data poses the greatest risk to personal autonomy that we have ever imagined."

Don't miss: AT&T's Smart City Solutions: Q&A with Reed Pangborn