What should future sensing technologies look like in urban public spaces?



Xi’an Jiaotong University, China

The SenCity workshop was hosted at UbiComp 2013 in Zurich, Switzerland. The aim was to explore the uses and form factor of mobile sensing kits and infrastructure sensing in urban environments.  This was in response to a growing trend of small sensing kits aimed at citizen hackers with the idea of creating crowd-sensing networks. What we wanted to look at in the workshop was the possible uses of such kits in a real urban environment and what benefits they could bring to the individual citizens who would make up these large crowd-sensing networks. In particular, should sensors be camouflaged or should they be highly visible to citizens? How could their form factor show affordances and provide a flavour of the data being sensed to citizens in the local environment? There is no doubt that such kits could provide huge amounts of data but what could we do with it?

In the workshop, participants were provided with a custom-made “SenCity” sensing kit.  Each kit had an LED display, a camera and various knobs, sliders and buttons so users could configure it on the go, without the need for programming. Materials were provided for groups to create casings for their sensor kits, resulting in a range of forms including a variety of anonymous grey boxes, sensing ducks and a hand-shaking alien. In the final part of the workshop, each group then went out into Zurich to try their creations in a real-world environment.

The data and pictures collected from the field testing were visualised using a custom-made visualisation tool that allowed each group to scan through their data, view the pictures, and put together “data stories” describing what they had sensed and why. Several key insights were recorded. Firstly, we observed first hand the significant impact that form factor can have in provoking or alleviating privacy anxieties of the public. Highly visible and curious objects such as the Duck and Alien encouraged a positive response and intrigue rather than an initial negative reaction and privacy concerns. Secondly, many members of the public wanted to interact with the sensing devices and were happy to engage. Some expressed that they would have liked some simple takeaway or reward for their engagement. We conclude that perhaps future sensing should not be such a passive, inaccessible activity in public spaces but rather interesting and informative additions to our urban landscapes.