Lily Bui, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Image: "Chinatown toronto spadina avenue" by chensiyuan - chensiyuan. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.
Image: “Chinatown toronto spadina avenue” by chensiyuan – chensiyuan. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

A city is a metaphysical experience. In a city, one confronts stimuli from all angles — sights, sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, tastes.

Michel De Certeau aptly describes how Wandersmanner (wanderers) consume the city through multiple senses by merely walking through it. Similarly, Allan Jacobs argues that just looking at cities — reading surfaces and surroundings as text — can serve as a means of interpreting human presence, inscription, and habit. In a foreword for Robert Laurini’s Information Systems for Urban Planning: A hypermedia co-operative approach, Michael Batty, Professor of Spatial Analysis and Planning at the University College of London, identifies the role that our senses play in the future of urban planning: “Words and numbers and pictures are of course the critical elements in this new world but…sound and touch and taste all have a place in the tools which…will define digital planning in the near future. The ‘convergence of media’ offers new insights into the way we might integrate the elements of urban planning.” Through this media lens, it would seem that the city becomes a palimpsest of human experience, of sensorial input and output.

However, while our own five senses are critical in helping us interpret the urban environment, they also have their limitations, prompting us to sometimes lean on technological conventions for aid. Sensor devices are often designed for tasks that either emulate or extend beyond our own five senses. For example, a thermometer is a sensor that measures temperature, which humans can sense with touch. A barometer, on the other hand, is designed to measure atmospheric pressure, something that lies beyond our own human capacity to sense accurately without proper tools. When applied to urban settings, sensors stand in where human presence isn’t necessarily possible or safe, logging information about the environment and providing feedback in ways and at scales that our own fives senses cannot.

In today’s world, the rising ubiquity and decreasing cost of sensing tools has the potential to change the way we plan, structure, and manage our cities. The following are some proposed ontologies for sensor-enabled, digital interventions that support the identification, mediation, and management of urban problems in the built environment.

Sensor stewardship

In a sensor stewardship scenario, citizens would be responsible for deploying and maintaining a sensor device that logs information about its environment. The materials may either be provided by another party, or citizens may use open source parts and construct the device themselves based on a shared, open schema. Some examples of projects like this include Data Canvas: Sense Your City; the Air Quality Egg; and SmartCitizen. All of these project involve open source hardware and software and allow participants to map their device’s data stream, which is then made publicly accessible. Protection of privacy and sensitive information becomes important in this scenario, especially if citizens are asked to deploy sensors in or near their homes or private spaces.

Mobile sensing

A multitude of sensors is already embedded in our smartphones. Potentially, anyone with access to a smartphone could collect and submit data about the urban environment. For example, SeeClickFix is a civic app that allows users to report non-emergency issues. In Detroit, residents use SeeClickFix to report damaged water pipes that need repair to the City of Detroit Water and Sewage Department. The problems are usually mapped and logged in a news feed. Ideally, an app like this enables a platform on which citizens and cities can collaboratively identify issues. StreetBump, developed by Boston’s Office of New Urbann Mechanics, is a smartphone app that uses accelerometer data, allowing bike and automotive commuters to help collect information about the bumpiness of roads, potentially identifying potholes.

Fixed sensor networks

There are also sensor networks already embedded in urban spaces. Most are controlled by city-level groups and in some cases the data may be proprietary, but there may be opportunities in the future to open access to these data streams to wider publics. AQICN is a realtime air quality index for Beijing, China as well as surrounding areas. Clairity is a similar type of air sensor network on MIT’s campus which logs data about pollutant gas species and particulate matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has a national sensor network called AirNow which tracks air pollution across urban spaces.


Wearables and Internet of Things objects

The Internet of Things, valued as a trillion-dollar industry in coming years, proposes a technological scenario in which any device or object can be connected to the Internet. This includes wearables, which are already commodified consumer goods, as well as “smart” appliances in and outside of the home (e.g. refrigerators, cars, street lights). With more objects around us generating realtime data, tools like Thingful — a map of public IoT devices — can help us navigate different urban spaces by looking at sensors that measure environmental and public health factors.

Remote sensing

Remote sensing is carried out by sensors aboard various platforms: satellites, planes, boats and Argo floats. Though many of these platforms are controlled by government agencies, organizations or private companies (few, if any, by individuals), it is possible to get access to some data that they collect. For example, NASA’s earth observation satellite OCO-2 collects data about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an important metric for urban planning around climate change. OCO-2 has an open data approach and plans to make data products available to the public and to industry.

It is increasingly possible in today’s world to collect data from disparate resources, and across many scales. Sensors are simply one means of doing so among many other digital interventions in the built urban environment. Cities can benefit from sensor tools and data in various contexts, but we must not forget that it is people who run cities and people who make up cities. No matter what the innovation, we must foreground the citizenry, not the technology, if they are human problems we seek to mediate in in the end.


Batty, Michael. Information Systems for Urban Planning: A hypermedia co-operative approach. Foreword. Taylor & Francis: London, 2001.

De Certeau, Michel. Walking in a City. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press: Los Angeles, CA, pp. 91-130, 1998.

Jacobs, Allan B. “Looking at cities.” Places, 1984.

Author Biography

Lily Bui is ​a researcher and M.S. candidate for MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. She is also a research assistant at ArchiMedia, a writing and rhetoric lab that explores various aspects of science communications. Previously, she worked as a STEM Story Project Associate at the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and the Executive Editor at SciStarter, PLOS CitizenSci, and Discover Magazine’s Citizen Science Salon. ​In past lives, she ​helped produce the radio show Re:sound for the Third Coast International Audio Festival out of WBEZ Chicago​;​ worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed as a touring musician.​ ​In her spare time, she t​inkers with electronics and thinks of cheesy science puns.

Contact email: lilybui@mit.edu


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Lily Bui, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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