Making Government Work

How Can an Old Smartphone Be Used to Make a City Better?

August 14, 2014
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How Can an Old Smartphone Be Used to Make a City Better?
Screengrab via Vimeo
You could get additional park benches or longer green lights, thanks to Placemeter.

Have you ever been annoyed by the amount of people fighting for position on a city sidewalk only to turn the corner and find the next block over all but deserted? Ever thought that your old smartphone could be used in some other capacity? These may seem like totally separate problems, but Alex Winter has one unique solution to solve both.

His new startup, Placemeter, has found a unique yet incredibly simple way to monitor street activity and turn it into data that cities and businesses can use — all the while putting discarded smartphones to use.

Here’s what happens: City dwellers send Placemeter information about where they live and what their view consists of. The company sends back a window mounting smartphone kit, which will allow them to use its camera to monitor street activity. The movement is then quantified using a computer program that identifies individual bodies and tracks their actions, as shown in this video. Even better? In exchange, folks providing a view get up to $50 per month for an asset that previously paid nothing, according to City Lab.

As great as Placemeter is for those with a good street view, it is even better for an urban area as a whole. That’s because the images captured through the smartphones, over time, yields valuable data for city officials. Foot and vehicle traffic patterns, as well as the use of benches and other public amenities, can all be tracked through Placemeter and used to improve everyday life.

“Measuring data about how the city moves in real time, being able to make predictions on that, is definitely a good way to help cities work better,” Winter told City Lab.

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The data is also very valuable to retailers, helping them assess what might be the best spot for a new store. Such data has been long sought after, but until now, there had not been a simple, widespread way to collect it.

For many, with this advancement comes the concern of privacy — both for those being observed on the street and those with a smartphone. Placemeter has emphasized its commitment to privacy, though, and says the device’s camera doesn’t monitor anything inside a host’s home. Additionally, a computer, not a human, analyzes all the images of the street, and once the useful data is captured, the footage is erased.

Although it’s only in New York for now, the company wants to expand to other U.S. cities.

Thanks to Placemeter, says Winter, “cities and citizens [can] collaborate to make the city better.”And who wouldn’t want that?

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