Our Lives, Reduced To Data

It may or may not be true that, in 1899, the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” But surely by now, technological innovations can no longer surprise.

We have landed on the moon and had cars cover half a million miles with no drivers. Amazon is planning to deliver packages via drone, and Google will do it with robots. Our phones contain the computing power of 2,500 Apollo 11s, and we’ve invented a mind-controlled communication device for people paralyzed by ALS.



So what does the future hold when everything is possible? My friend Roger Dennis has spent a lot of time looking at macro trends to help governments and large corporate entities better prepare for the future. Two years ago, in Christchurch, New Zealand -- the city we live in -- he spotted the convergence of several major trends: urbanization, big data, wicked problems like climate change… and the kicker: a major earthquake that wiped out most of our downtown and left in its wake a city without a heart.

Being a futurist and a technologist, Roger saw this as an opportunity. He created the Sensing City concept: measure anything and everything, then use the data to offer greater understanding of how cities work and help us make changes for the better.

Sensing City’s first project, Little Water Sensor, lets kids use paper sensors to test water quality, scanning the color-calibrated results with an app that aggregates the data and makes it readily available. Their second project attaches sensors to asthma inhalers, measuring the correlation between air quality and inhaler use in real-time.

These crowd-sourced projects are likely to reveal some interesting patterns, but Sensing City is also looking at top-down measurements: aggregated Building Information Systems, traffic flows, pedestrian movements, etc. As Roger says, “Nowhere in the world could you force a city center to shut down for a few years while it gets retrofitted with sensors. But in Christchurch, that’s been done for us by the earthquakes.”

Roger’s vision for the future of Christchurch is near-utopian, and I’ve seen many people instinctively recoil when he’s describing, for example, how foot traffic could be measured and analyzed. We love data, but we hate it being gathered on us, and Roger’s dream is a cross between the Jetsons and Gattaca.

He addresses these issues through aggregation, opt-out policies, and the like. And while he may still have a long way to go to fully assuage the concerns of the privacy-conscious, the truth is many of these sensors are already out there: traffic cameras watching your car, pressure pads measuring foot traffic at intersections, smart meters keeping tabs on your energy use.

If we do have a visceral reaction against this kind of work, we need to explore it, urgently, understand what the real issue is (is it just data collection? Or is it that I might be personally identified? Or something else altogether?), and have a serious public debate.

Maybe not everything that can be invented has been invented. But everything that can be imagined can be invented -- and, in many cases, we’re probably a lot further down the track than you might imagine. Most people aren’t aware that driverless cars have had so much successful time on the road, or that drones may soon be delivering our pizza. In the Christchurch of tomorrow, there’s a good chance that all of the data of our lives will be captured and analyzed. The future is already here, and it is driven by our very own data.

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