Showcasing The Urban Heartbeat Using Geo-Based Tech : All Tech Considered Before geo-based tech, it was almost impossible to get a real-time idea of where a city's heartbeat was. But what does this technology do for cities and what how do urbanists feel about it?
NPR logo Showcasing The Urban Heartbeat Using Geo-Based Tech

Showcasing The Urban Heartbeat Using Geo-Based Tech

You are here.

And so are a million other people, except, now, there's a way to get real-time information about them.

Using anonymous location-based data compiled from tens of millions of devices, companies like SpotRank create data maps, opening an entirely new window into where those humans are.

Marshall Kirkpatrick in his related article on Read, Write, Web sums the service up like this:

Imagine being able to look blocks or miles away from where you are and see how many people are hanging out at an intersection -- in real time. Add a layer of precisely located Twitter messages, Foursquare check-ins, Flickr photos and other social data and what have you got?

Well, possible mass casualties if you also add a bomb to the mix.

But aside from the macabre, Skyhook rolled out a demo using the technology to map the San Francisco Marathon.

The technology could also prove handy for things like emergency evacuations and dispatching of law enforcement and emergency medical services officials during huge public events. Advertisers and public health officials could use the technology to target campaigns. Not to mention that it's just plain fascinating and cool.

To use it, all you have to do is sign up for an account with SimpleGeo, the company Skyhook collaborated with to create SpotRank.

But I couldn't help but wonder, "What would the great urban planner Jane Jacobs think?"

Jacobs singlehandedly took on the modernist designers of her time, namely the renowned New York City urban planner, Robert Moses, denouncing their attempts at organizing, sterilizing, and dehumanizing the urban landscape. Via car-centric city planning focused on more highways and single-use, segregated districts, Robert Moses and his ilk are the fathers of modern day urban sprawl.

But these geo- and data-based technologies allow urbanists to see what's happening when and where, providing city dwellers an interface showcasing the urban heartbeat.

The data encourages the mixed-uses of cities that Jacobs was such a proponent of. They create diverse blocks that integrate all of our daily activities, from waking, to working, to socializing, to urban repose and back again. They encourage the circulation of people – the blood of the urban circulatory system – by allowing us to digitally monitor our surroundings, providing more avenues and a sense of order through which to celebrate the chaos and messiness that Jacobs deemed vital to the success of modern cities.

To that point, New York City used the technology to track taxi flow across Manhattan via this interactive. Based on GPS data over a period of three months, city officials determined the best and worst places and times to catch a cab. How useful is that?

This data has always existed in cities, but we've just now developed technology to expose and harness it. Humans, the generators of all this data, are the lifeblood of cities. This technology allows us to monitor an urban center's pulse and respond accordingly. I'm excited to see how cities evolve in this age of urban informatics and geo-based everything.

Callie Neylan is a design professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is interested in cities as interfaces and researching how design and technology change the ways we interact with the urban space.