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“Smart” bench gathers data to help urban planners meet public’s needs
Jill Odom | July 21, 2017
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Photo: Soofa

It seems that there is a “smart” version of every basic object nowadays, but an intriguing one for landscape designers who design public spaces is the smart bench.

One example of these smart benches can be found in Anita Stroud Park in Charlotte, North Carolina. The bench attracts many visitors thanks to a pair of USB ports connected to a solar-powered console, suddenly becoming a godsend for those who have a dead or dying phone.

But this feature isn’t really what makes this bench smart. Built in beneath the solar panel is a Wi-Fi enabled sensor that is able to register anyone who walks within 150 feet of the bench with a Wi-Fi enabled mobile device as a unique visitor to the park.

The data it collects is not the individual’s personal information, but their ID associated with the Wi-Fi enabled device, so that if they visit the park again it will know that they are not a new visitor.

“The idea that we can learn about how many people are using the space, when they are there, and how long they are there without having to literally send someone out there to count people is very valuable,” Monica Carney Holmes, the planning coordinator for Charlotte’s urban design office, told Landscape Architecture Magazine.

The bench is manufactured by Soofa, a company that founded by 3 MIT Media Lab grads in 2014. It was installed in Anita Stroud Park in October last year and Holmes’s office has already been able to benefit from the data it has gathered.

By discovering that 85 percent of the visitors are repeat visitors and foot traffic is most high on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, they have in response scheduled more programs like Zumba and tai chi for the weeknights rather than Saturday mornings.

Soofa unveiled its solar-powered bench back in 2014 during the White House Maker Faire.

“We envision Soofas acting as magnets that invite people to enjoy the outdoors while reading the news, sharing a video or catching up on email without fear of running out of power,” said Jutta Friedrichs, co-founder and designer of the smart furniture.

While urban data collection obviously comes with the benefits of being able to design and plan green spaces to better suit how the population actually uses them, there are some major concerns involving privacy.

Soofa’s sensors can pick up the media access control (MAC) address of a device, which is similar to an IP address, and then adds a cryptographic function to help anonymize the data, but its privacy policy says that it may “share data with research organizations both for and not for profit…to advance our research platform.”

Herein lies part of the problem this mass data collection poses. There are no signs around the Soofa bench alerting them to the fact they will be registered. They are given no option to opt out.

“It is incredibly difficult to implement traditional privacy concepts like notice and consent in the context of drones or sensors in public space,” Timothy Yim, director of data and privacy at the nonprofit Startup Policy Lab, told Landscape Architecture Magazine.

Another issue that has to be considered is the actual safety of the data that is being collected.

“It is very hard to guarantee that any de-identification process is 100 percent fool proof,” Yim told Landscape Architecture Magazine. “And the more data that we have sitting in private repositories, like data aggregators and data brokers, the greater the likelihood that re-identification is possible.”

Obviously, the smart city is still a long way off, but these are factors to consider as technology continues to become ever more powerful and potent.

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