Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
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In 2014, researchers from the University of Washington announced that pairing Google StreetView with a cluster of “smart” surveillance cameras allowed them to create “a self-organized and scalable multiple-camera tracking system that tracks humans across the cameras.”
In so many words, they showed that it was possible to build a dynamic, near real-time visualization of pedestrians and traffic flows, projected onto a 360-degree map of the world. A bit of machine-learning software helped erase any seams. This was an early proof of concept in an urban setting of a technological model now known as a “digital twin.”
“Digital twin” is a creepy-sounding phrase, conjuring visions of pixelated doppelgangers haunting your every step. It doesn’t necessarily describe an all-out surveillance state, though: In some ways, this is an extension of the 3-D computer models that architects and engineers use to help plan a building, or maneuver the inner workings of a car engine before they hit the factory.
But the big difference with what the UW researchers were doing is that they were feeding real-time, real-world data into the digital platform, enabling an exact virtual simulacrum of physical streets. What’s more, AI enabled the virtual world to respond to the projected movements in a way that made it seem more real. This technology has taken off in the years since: IBM, Microsoft, HERE Maps, and Descartes Labs are all working toward building “digital twin” technologies for different uses, including for city planning.
For local governments, the benefits could be big. Already, a number Indian cities have adopted “digital twin” software to help manage water and energy infrastructure. In the U.K., researchers at Newcastle University built a digital twin of their city to help it better respond to flooding.
And the bylaws of the Open Mobility Foundation, a global nonprofit recently established to help cities govern the future of mobility data, state that a “digital twin” is the “only way” for cities to get control over the scooters, ride-hailing cars, and other conveyances clogging their streets. It describes how a digital replica of city streets could quickly model how, say, switching traffic signals to prioritize a speeding ambulance would affect other vehicle flows and what transportation officials would need to adjust in order to manage them.
On the other hand, the privacy implications of such a paradigm are pretty big. Who says a city should have that much oversight into the individual movements of every vehicle on the road? How much personally identifiable information would that require a city to absorb and own, and for how long? Players in the world of transportation technology are asking these questions now, as the public officials who head up the Open Mobility Foundation convene for their first board meeting next week. We’ll see what they have to say. (And watch for my story with more about digital twins, later this week in CityLab.)
What do you think? For local governments, will a “digital twin” usher in a surveillance state, or help officials make decisions for the public good? Write a note to share your thoughts.
The “creative class,” mapped
Richard Florida, the widely cited urbanist, academic, and CityLab editor-at-large, has a new piece examining the changing geography of the “creative class.” That’s the term Florida has long used as a demographic shorthand for college-educated people who work in education, healthcare, law, arts, tech, science, and business. This represents about 6 in 10 Americans.
As of 2005, Florida writes, these folks were more distributed around the country:
Back then, the top ten list read like a veritable who’s who of the nation’s leading knowledge and tech hubs, led by Washington, D.C.; San Jose; and San Francisco. But Baltimore (with a large cluster of medical and scientific research centers around Johns Hopkins University) and Minneapolis-St. Paul also make the top-10 list, besting bigger metros like New York and Los Angeles.
But by 2017, the creative class had become much more concentrated in leading employment centers, he continues:
San Jose tops the list, followed by D.C. and San Francisco, and now Denver and Philadelphia have joined the top ten.