Data economy in the smart city landscape - V

Detecting the feeling of people related to a specific city area. Red represents positive, engaging "warm" feelings, blue negative "cold" feelings. Credit: UCL

Understanding feelings by detecting electrical bra activity. Credit: Emotiv

One of the EIT Digital Partners, UCL, has studied a variety of ways to harvest data and to process these data to grasp the soul of a city, to understand what is going on by observing its citizen.

They have considered over 600 data sets, and several of these are connected to people. Sometimes the connection is through the usage of a resource, like bikes being rented that show how people rent bikes in the evening in the inner London (as they get out of the office) and use them to go home, with the reverse pattern in the morning with bikes converging on the city center from the periphery. In cases like this I already noticed in the previous post the potential implications on privacy, since it wouldn’t be impossible to derive the identity of a person by looking at the “rental” behavior.

However, what impressed me, as I had the opportunity of listening to a UCL researcher, was an experiment they did with a number of volunteers that accepted to wear a brain electrical signals detector (they come cheap nowadays, look at the one in the photo). By analyzing the signals and localizing the place where the brain produced those signals they have been able to create a map of the city (a commercial neighbor of London) indicating the places that arouse positive or negative feelings (see the map in the figure with red colors indicating positive feelings and colder colors indicating negative feelings).

This kind of information, if the experiment is run for a sufficient time span (a few months?) and involves a significant number of people could provide interesting information having an economic value.

Suppose that you also have data on what is being showcased in the shops windows, the price of goods plus other data about the weather, the transportation system in the area and so on. I would suspect that correlation might be found between the general mood of people as they walk around and what is being displayed. Of course this correlation may be beneficial to shopkeepers that may adjust their merchandise to influence the mood of potential customers.

Ok, this may appear a bit far fetched, particularly the idea of having people moving around with a light helmet, like the one in the figure, to pick up their brain activity…

Right, but you don’t actually need to have people wearing a helmet to detect their mood. Face analyses is an alternative, and a pretty good one. And your, my face, is picked up today by hundreds of security cameras, plus tens (growing) cameras placed in shops’ windows. Ever more sophisticated software can analyze my face, my gait, the length of my staying in front of a window, it can event detect my heart beat (by processing the tiny oscillation of my head and the slight change in color of my skin as result of blood pulses) and infer if something I am watching stimulates me (in the positive or in the negative). And we are talking about today’s technology, already deployed. 
 A city can be a ubiquitous observer of what we do and how we feel about it. This goes one notch up on the ladder of (lack of) privacy!

In a high impact initiative we are running at the EIT Digital, we are looking at Smart Street Retail. I am not saying that in this project we are observing the inner emotions of potential clients but it is clear that technology has the potential of doing just that. And on the other hand shop windows are dressed up to attract your gaze, and to stimulate you buying things … So technology is just providing an extra possibility, a more effective one.  Already today malls, department stores, store chains study the psychology of their potential customers and design the shops accordingly. 


The availability of data, or what the UCL people say “city as a server”, will multiply business effectiveness. Data will be the starting point for the business strategy and will impact the atoms, rather than the other way around.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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