August 16, 2006 - From the August, 2006 issue

‘Mash-Ups' Will Revolutionize How Planners and Citizens View City Planning

Only in L.A. would an embedded sensor, "mash-up"conference linking digital media and urban planning make any sense. But thanks in part to the research of Jeff Burke at UCLA's School of Theater, Film, & Television, new visualization technologies are finding a myriad of civic applications. TPR was pleased to speak with Prof. Burke and Dr. William Hollingshead of the Rhode Island Dept. of Health about the evolving uses of embedded sensing, GIS, and Web mapping.

Jeff Burke

Information technology applications are emerging every day; the challenge for is how to take advantage of such innovation for the public good. How might your work at UCLA improve the urban environment?

What we find extremely intriguing involves the combination of several technologies: positioning technologies like GPS; Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which enable the mapping of spatial information from GPS and other location-based systems; and finally sensor networks that observe physical environments and contribute those observations to large-scale data sets.

An everyday example of a sensing device is a cell phone, which can capture images and sound, and often has both positioning capability and a connection to the internet. We are interested in thinking about these not as just phones but as data-capture devices and tools to participate in documenting our cities.

UCLA recently co-hosted a conference with Cal Tech and USC on the potential for embedded sensors to be used to improve the public's imagination and policy making. Address the goals and possible value of that conference.

This is new for us. We brought together CENS, a National Science Foundation Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, which looks at the technology issues involved with embedded sensing, with our Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP ) that has more of a cultural and civic focus in its research. We wanted to bring the community that is developing such technologies-primarily for scientific applications-together with folks that do mapping and visualization and have experience in creating ways to explore media and data that are experiential and engaged.

What questions and possibilities did the attendees explore?

We had a couple of different tracks. One considered the question: what are embedded sensors, technologically, and what are people doing with geographic visualization of data in cities? Then we explored how these could work together in cities, for real. What would the process of deploying new infrastructure or re-using the existing infrastructure be? What would have to happen as far as privacy controls and new network services to enable people to share this kind of data and then have a chance themselves to analyze and map it? And then finally, what are some possible testbeds, both in this area and internationally for us to move forward in experimentation?

Elaborate on the research now underway. What embedded sensor research opportunities are UCLA interested in exploring?

We're looking now at three or four different testbeds. We're going to do something locally at UCLA so that we keep some research close to the graduate students and can leverage a very vibrant and dense student population. Moving out into the city, we have an ongoing discussion with California State Parks about initial exploration in the interim park for the Los Angeles State Historic Park site.

We'd like to do some work in an experimental laboratory near the park with communities from the Solano Canyon area and other nearby communities. Finally, we have one international conversation with the University of British Columbia, which is looking at deployment in Vancouver as they roll out new wireless infrastructure for the 2010 Olympics. That city has a very special, articulated interest in the relationship between environmental concerns and their interest in new technologies.

What are "mash-ups"? What unique civic and planning applications do they present for visualizing correlated data sets?

It was always possible in specialized circumstances, such as planning or geographic information systems that are used for particular science applications. With the advent of Google Maps and other online services that are not thinking of themselves simply as applications, but rather as services for people to re-use, there is now a trend called "mash-ups"-of taking data that exists in one service, usually referenced to a position (latitude and longitude), and maybe from another couple of services, and then using something like Google Maps to tie those together into a presentation that combines different data sets correlated by geography.

It combines different services from the Web to generate some unique presentation of information, often on the fly. This isn't unfamiliar to planners or people who are used to looking at that data, but these services do it online in a very fast, efficient, and problem-specific way, without a lot of expensive tools and without dealing directly with the huge data sets. I think this will get extremely interesting when it intersects with people gathering their own data.

Many of our readers are familiar with the computer game Sim City. How might your research take that a step further to affect community planning and public health?

I think the potential-I'm guessing-is most interesting in two areas. In the cultural area, communities can construct distributed histories based on the photos they take and the stories that they tell, and assigning them to a place and allowing people to navigate that geotagged history later on. You can think about it as not only ‘data' but also as the history and memories carried in photographs and stories and recordings in the oral and visual histories of particular communities. And it gives people the ability to essentially embed those records in real places instead of just in one library or even in the amorphous searchable area of the internet. That is an area that we can look at from the point of view of a School of Theater, Film, and Television: a new form of documentary and a new form of community involvement in the documentary process.

Then the other half is civic engagement. You can look at other data about what is actually happening in those communities-what are health metrics that people can measure for themselves? What if we did noise level or other quality of life mappings using exiting cell phones? We have to look at what quality of life metrics can be measured in very straightforward ways.

Dr. Hollingshead, as director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, how might your department and the city of Providence benefit from this research at UCLA and other academic centers?

William Hollingshead: I think public health professionals have always recognized the importance of place. We have long accepted how important it is to integrate all the influences that matter to health in a particular place. Whether it's risks of injury, bad air, or a place that is too dangerous to get good exercise; there are a lot of reasons to think that where you are has a material impact on health.


Being a very small state, Rhode Island thinks about this subject at a micro level. In the last few years we've taken advantage of the work of some wonderful people at the Providence Plan, which is a shared economic development entity, to create mapping capacity and to make sure that they have the data, not only around health, but around education and school outcomes, law enforcement, and other dangers to people. And they've become very facile at mapping and presenting these in overlaid pictures of how the threats to health play out in the neighborhoods and sometimes on individual streets in Providence.

The police department uses the data, we use the data, the economic development people use the data, and we're beginning to get a shared language and a much better sense of how this all fits together.

Dr. Hollingshead, why did he Rhode Island Department of Health decide to invest and collaborate with Providence Plan in the application of this visualized mapping technology?

WH: The alternative was to try to do it ourselves, and it was very clear that these people had figured out how to do a lot of things that we felt we needed. They had some data that we'd never been able to get our hands on ourselves, and it made no sense at all, especially in an environment of reduced state budgets and staff to try to reinvent it, so we pulled together a little bit-not much-of our family health, maternal, and child health money to buy a small share.

We did a study of kids' mobility and housing's impact on their health. We're doing another study with them on teen pregnancies and where that phenomenon occurs and what it does over the next couple of years to the life trajectory of young women and their babies.

It's exciting stuff, but we're only paying for a very small portion of it; all of the infrastructure and most of the expertise was actually financed for economic development and other purposes and we just tapped into that.

How are you using this "mash-up" data?

WH: Let's use the mobility study. We've known for many years that kids who aren't able to put down roots and stay in one place long enough to develop some relationships and get to know the neighborhood don't do as well.

Using their data and their capacity to look at movement we were able to demonstrate that school success was seriously threatened for any child that had had more than, I think, four residential moves in the pre-school years. And that had quite an impact on school, department policy; it's changed the kind of risk criteria that we use to look at little kids that seem to be in unstable housing, even if they don't have other risk factors.

JB: One thing I find really interesting is William's confirmation of the value to public health professionals of outsourced mapping and data technology and information. You can also imagine a trend towards re-using infrastructure that was designed for other purposes.

If you look at Google Maps and their motivation, different combinations of those same technologies, with a little bit of research and a little bit of effort, are going to enable a lot more community input into the mapping and data-gathering levels of public projects.

Ultimately, the emphasis may shift from centralized data gathering from a select sample population to participatory data-gathering with large sample populations that are involved in every step of collection, analysis, and presentation. I think that could be a great asset to the public health community-though I am speaking from outside of it-and that this emphasis on involving individual communities in that process is really exciting.

Lastly, how will municipalities use these technologies and others, like municipal Wi-Fi, for public good?

Bandwidth doesn't solve everything, although it is extremely important to make broadband access a priority because it allows people to engage with a major mechanism of modern communication. At some point infrastructure includes this investment in connectivity, but might often lack consideration of a civic role that these new networks might play.

For example, you have public broadcasting in the television world, and you have city libraries-investments that are about fostering the sharing of information on a civic and cultural level, even in that television spectrum that was also valuable for commercial uses.

I am curious to see what the parallel civic investment in wireless networks will be. As cities roll out WiFi, bandwidth questions are going to be answered technologically. I want to know what cities can do to make these things not just a rote implementation of infrastructure, but also have some type of cultural and civic value that nobody else is going to do unless the city or a municipality engages.


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