Graham Dove wants to make sure that communities have a say in smart city deployments


Dove's recent paper received a best-paper honorable mention at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing 

Smart city projects deploy Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to gather data with the aim of improving life for residents: monitoring how space is used, optimizing traffic flow and public transportation, and measuring noise levels, among other factors. Yet the presence of these sensors gives rise to important questions involving accountability, privacy, and civil liberties. How should we really feel about the use of cameras and microphones on our streets? Or biometric devices that allow New York City’s Housing Authority to monitor who enters public housing projects? And what about facial recognition sensors that enable law enforcement agencies to track people walking down city streets?

Assistant Professor Graham Dove, from Tandon’s Department of Technology Management and Innovation, and Center for Urban Science + Progress (CUSP), is trying to navigate the ethical and political ramifications of the smart city. 

His recent paper, co-authored by Eric Corbett of Google Research (and a former postdoctoral fellow at CUSP), addresses how community members perceive the issue of transparency as it relates to smart-city sensors.

"Signs of the Smart City: Exploring the Limits and Opportunities of Transparency” — which received a best-paper honorable mention at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing (ACM CHI), the premier venue for human-computer interaction research — details an investigation done in collaboration with the NYC Office of Technology and Innovation. And while at first it might seem obvious that greater transparency is a simple and virtuous goal that can be achieved by making the presence and purpose of sensors more visible, the researchers concluded that real transparency is unlikely to be achieved that way. 

In a series of participatory design workshops held at public libraries, New York City residents were asked what they would like to know — and understand — about the smart city sensors that might be deployed in their neighborhoods. Participants created examples of physical signage that would share answers to these concerns with their neighbors, on the premise that trust and transparency would best be served through information.

However, when Dove and Corbett reflected on these workshops and the “signs” that people created, it became clear that the transparency residents wanted involved way more than information about what data the sensors might gather and which City agency had deployed them. 

“We found that people’s concerns went beyond making sensors more transparent but instead sought to reveal the technology’s interconnected social, political, and economic processes.” the researchers write.

They concluded that the concerns expressed through the workshops’ activities are much broader, encompassing public participation in smart city decision-making, and in the civil rights, economics, and power structures, involved — which could not be readily addressed through physical signage alone. “Situations change and peoples’ concerns vary,” Dove explains. “We think it’s better to view transparency as an ongoing process or activity that includes the social, as well as the technical, context of smart cities, rather than something that can be achieved through a one-time effort.” 

Like this project, Dove’s broader body of work takes user-centered and participatory approaches to designing and understanding data-enabled products, services, and artifacts (such as smart sensors) and human engagement with machine-learning.

We read constantly about the misuse of tech, from people becoming addicted to their screens to intrusive digital surveillance, but it can also be enriching and liberating if it’s created in a way that puts people first.” 
— Graham Dove

City planners and government agencies would do well to heed that advice when rolling out their smart-city initiatives.