Polluting Truck? Uneven Sidewalk? Grab Your Camera Phone

A research lab at UCLA aims to improve cities from the grassroots up, with a soon-to-launch platform that will allow citizens to document trends in their built environment using their mobile phones. The concept, dubbed “urban sensing” by the university’s Center for Embedded Network Sensing (CENS), hinges on taking as much advantage of the data-capture capabilities of the mobile phone as people already do of its communication capabilities.

“People can use their phones to make a case about something in their urban or rural environments they’re concerned about,” says Deborah Estrin, a professor of computer science and the director of CENS. That might be something large-scale, like global warming, or something small-scale and close to home, like snapping evidence of pools where mosquitoes breed, or areas of uneven sidewalk that pose a hazard to a community’s children and elderly. “This can be a very cost-effective way of doing urban maintenance,” Estrin says.

Though ultimately the goal is for individual citizens to devise their own campaigns, the CENS team has been testing out possible uses for the urban sensing platform as they develop it. Its first campaign–which will launch when CENS’s iPhone and Android applications hit the market in the next few weeks–is called “What’s Invasive.”  The idea is for people to snap photos of invasive plant species that have deleterious effects on local ecosystems. Similarly, a “What’s Polluting” campaign documents idling trucks, which waste fuel and endanger public health. And, this summer, a team of interns devised a “Waterbusters” campaign to record violations of California’s water-usage laws.

Currently, the barriers preventing people from taking an active role in improving their cities are time, money, and the “What can one person do?” mindset. So a key goal for CENS was to lower those barriers by making as cheap, easy, and collaborative a platform as possible. They’re planning to make their application available for free, counting on communities and nonprofits with a pet cause to come up with incentive systems to get people to participate. “We’re just trying to make it as easy to launch a campaign as to put up a Web page,” Estrin says. And once the campaign is started, the barriers to participation are even lower: “Two clicks–of launching the application and taking a photo–and that data is automatically geocoded, timestamped, and thrown into a database.”

The potential dark side of such ubiquitous data-capture is not lost on the CENS team, and Estrin is quick to emphasize the consideration they’re giving to personal privacy issues. The current plan, she says, is to have a “personal data” vault that includes all the raw information of users’ personal locations, and which only the individual user has access to. “I do think the privacy issues are paramount,” she says.

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