The Alarming Richness of Orwellian Urban Data

In the winter of 1998, the New York Civil Liberties Union held a press conference to announce that they had developed a comprehensive map of all public surveillance camera locations in the city. Even then, when there wasn’t a functioning smart grid, video was largely recorded on tape, and the internet was still in its infancy, certain groups could see glimpses of the full potential of citywide surveillance. What’s worse, as the union’s Executive Director Norman Siegel outlined, “Video surveillance cameras have arrived in the streets of New York City, with effectively no organized discussion or debate on their role in our city.”

Even further back, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the renowned NYC planning commissioner William Whyte fully understood the potential of learning from watching, and famously sent his assistants out onto the streets of New York with cameras to document precisely how city inhabitants used their open urban spaces. In The Organization Man, Whyte outlined his concerns and aspirations side-by-side:

“Someday someone is going to create a stir by proposing a radical new tool for the study of people. It will be called the face-value technique. It would be based on the premise that people often do what they do for the reasons they think they do. The use of this technique will lead to many pitfalls, for it is undeniably true that people do not always act logically or say what they mean. But I wonder if it would produce findings any more unscientific than the opposite course.”

Today, in fact, a version of this tool exists and is in use by our government as I write this (and you read this), monitoring our behavior and outlining our preferences detail-by-detail. Yesterday The Guardian released an article summarizing how it is used. “For the first time under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.”

But the idea that we live in some version of a surveillance state is fodder for those more interested in conspiracies than facts. Instead, consider exactly what function data such as this (alongside camera surveillance, satellite, etc.) can serve to organizations who are not the NSA; in particular, the HUD and DOT.

At the moment, a close but somewhat disparate community of demographers, universities, agencies and institutions serve as an instrument for providing useful, thoughtful yet ultimately decentralized research on trends for important urban essentials such as walkability, density, vehicle traffic, bicycle traffic, public transportation use, microclimate temperature, pollution monitoring, waste management, light and shade monitoring, road engineering and user/citizen experience and behavior. Some methodologies (monitoring air quality, for example) have become industry and legal standards while others (user experience, for example) still remain an enigma to many of us. Thus we return to the core interest of Whyte’s residency at the New York Planning Department: how—exactly—we use urban spaces, and if current planning and designing theories reflect this behavior.

Today, though, we have discovered that finding an answer to Whyte’s question involves making a strategic choice. On one side, access to useful and unlimited information on where, how, when and why we use public spaces and transportation (as well as how we can work together to dramatically improve these systems) can be easily delivered through widespread public surveillance. Access to such immense quantities of data can help provide any group—existing institutions to regulatory agencies to small non-profits—with an affluence of information to help shape and adapt our living urban spaces to thrive. As acquiring data, observation or otherwise, is an monumental task for any advocate of smart urbanism, the availability of an extravagant amount of data can tremendously reduce the cost of providing thoughtful, defined strategies while dramatically increasing the amount of policy accountability and user feedback.

On the other side, United States citizens are currently victims of our government’s currently-legal system of domestic spying. In 2006, USA Today released an article claiming that the NSA has been secretly collecting records and recording phone calls of citizens in a supermassive federal database. “It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” stated an unidentified interviewee. “[To] create a database of every call ever made.” In the words of George Orwell, writer of 1984, “Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

As the 1950 Hawthorne study showed, our monitored behavior may not be the most correct representation of the way we interact with others, with our tools, or with our spaces. So it’s possible that, even after surveillance is fully-integrated into society, the data we gather will still only provide a portion of the full story.

On the other hand, Orwell also wrote that “a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance,” and the utilization of wide-spread, grand-scale population data will be an absolute asset to major research institutions and small, local non-profits alike. No great asset can be given away to fight back poverty and ignorance than good data.

In the end, it is left only to us, the designers, to draw lines in the sand.