Like a growing plant or a colony of sea monkeys, a city can only reach its full potential if it’s properly cared for. If you want a thriving houseplant, you play it Mozart; if you want happy sea monkeys, you should expose them to intermittent sunlight, according to seamonkeyworship.com. And if you want a smart city, it’s important to keep it well fed on a nutritious diet of data, according to Sidewalk Labs, an urban planning and technology company owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. But while the Sidewalk Labs’ purported goal is “reimagining cities to improve quality of life,” its reliance on widespread data collection means the real winners could be the land developers who use our data to inform their business decisions.
Just as WeWork wants to optimize the workplace through surveillance, Sidewalk Labs aims to do the same, but on a bigger scale. The company plans on using location data collected from cellphones to construct a holistic transportation portrait for entire cities, Ava Kofman reported in The Intercept on Monday:
“The program, known as Replica, offers planning agencies the ability to model an entire city’s patterns of movement. Like “SimCity,” Replica’s “user-friendly” tool deploys statistical simulations to give a comprehensive view of how, when, and where people travel in urban areas. It’s an appealing prospect for planners making critical decisions about transportation and land use. In recent months, transportation authorities in Kansas City, Portland, and the Chicago area have signed up to glean its insights. The only catch: They’re not completely sure where the data is coming from.”
While Sidewalk Labs’ insists that the data it has collected from individuals has been de-identified, Kofman says there are still privacy concerns associated with collecting and monetizing location data. Because of the granularity of location tracking data, privacy experts say that it can be very easy to re-identify anonymized data — if you are going from the same apartment to the same office every day, it doesn’t take much sleuthing to attach a name to a datapoint.
Putting aside privacy concerns, the ability to construct an accurate model of how people move through a city is still rather alarming. While are there are plenty of applications that could help make cities more livable, like pouring more resources into highly trafficked areas, or modeling potential infrastructure changes to see how they affect the population, there is high potential for abuse using a system like Replica.
For one, Sidewalk Labs mentions that the software will cater to land developers on its website: “Replica offers public agencies, land developers, and the community at large a complete sense of city movement patterns. The result is a higher confidence in critical transportation and land use decisions.”
I’ve reached out to Sidewalk Labs for clarification on what exactly “land developers” means, but at the time of writing haven’t received a response. What it sounds like is real estate developers having access to a state-of-the-art model of an entire populations’ movement through an urban space, giving them a better idea of where to direct their efforts in order to make the most money. This is what Facebook did for advertisers, and it’s why corporations in industries like health insurance are scrambling to collect as much data on people as they can; if your insurer knows everything about you, it can better gauge your health risks and set a price point that maximizes profit.
The same principle applies for land developers, and Replica could be an invaluable tool if sold off to corporations and not properly regulated. And the likelihood of there being any meaningful regulation on a nascent technology like this one is slim. Time and time again companies have altered the world before government even understands the ramifications of new technology (Exhibit A: Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony). By the time the company is told to stop, the infrastructural damage has already been done.
Even if Replica is used solely by local officials to inform urban planning, having a close technocratic relationship between a Sidewalk Labs and government increases Alphabet and Google’s influence on our public lives. Taking into consideration the United States’ sordid history of housing discrimination, more “effective,” data-driven city planning is by no means an inherent good. Most of the internet is already controlled by one of the Big Five tech companies — Replica could be an early sign that our physical spaces are headed that way, too.