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Connecting the Tangible And the Virtual Realm of a City
In the past decades, real time control systems have been developed in a variety of engineering applications. In so doing, they have dramatically increased the efficiency of systems through energy savings, regulation of the dynamics, increased robustness and disturbance tolerance. Now: can you have a city that performs as a real time control system? This is the aim of the WikiCity project at MIT, which deals with the development of real-time location-sensitive tools for the city.
By Carlo Ratti, Francesco Calabrese and Kristian Kloeckl

WikiCity Concept - 2D and 3D interfaces as connections between the tangible and the virtual realm of a city.

The Four Key Components
The WikiCity project is concerned with the real-time mapping of city dynamics. This mapping however is not limited to representing the city but instead becomes instantly an instrument for city inhabitants to base their actions and decisions upon in a better informed manner. In this way the real-time map changes the city context as well as that altered context changes the real-time map accordingly. This with the ultimate aim of leading to an overall increased efficiency and sustainability in making use of the city environment.

Let’s examine the four key components of a real time control system:
  1. entity to be controlled in an environment characterized by uncertainty;
  2. sensors able to acquire information about the entity’s state in real-time;
  3. intelligence capable of evaluating system performance against desired outcomes;
  4. physical actuators able to act upon the system to realize the control strategy.

Technology features and meta-functions to generate application fields. By intersecting the meta-functions
and the potential of technological features we can identify areas which lead us to new application concepts
for the WikiCity project.

A city certainly fits the definition of point 1, and point 2 does not seem to pose particular problems. What about points 3 and 4? How to actuate the city? Although the city already contains several classes of actuators such as traffic lights and remotely updated street signage, their range of use is currently limited. A much more flexible actuator would be the city’s own inhabitants: they represent a distributed actuation system in which each person pursues his individual interest in cooperation and competition with others, with the overall behaviour of the system governed by the interaction between individuals. People can also clearly form part of the overall intelligence of the control system. Towards the above goal, the WikiCity project can be thought of as adding further, interaction-oriented layers to a real-time map of the city and making location and time-sensitive information accessible to users, allowing them full control on the database, onto which they can upload and download data. In this way, these tools enable people to become distributed intelligent actuators and thus became prime actors themselves in improving the efficiency of urban systems.

A key characteristic of WikiCity being the circulation of information on a real-time basis, we can identify different
‘time zones’ in which the data can be useful and supportive to different agents and different operations. These
determine the way data shall be made accessible.

WikiCity refers to a number of active threads of research and business in different fields on topics such as:
In today’s cities a multitude of digital devices are distributed among people, moving vehicles, static architecture and products to record, store and transfer data of different kinds. Wired, wireless and mobile communication technologies are turning these devices into effective and interconnected sensors that can reflect different variables in a city’s dynamic such as transportation, communication and social patterns, environmental values, the state of buildings and personal values just to name a few.

Interactive Maps
Today’s electronically interactive maps like Google Maps (maps.google.com) combine detailed aerial and satellite images, sophisticated zooming-panning interaction and local search functions to create the most powerful maps to date. These maps are also modifiable by users when combined with geo-tagged, place-related information.

Wikipedia is a multi-lingual, Web-based free content encyclopaedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers, allowing most articles to be changed by almost anyone with access to the Web site. There has been controversy over Wikipedia 's reliability and accuracy, because information is sometimes unconfirmed and questionable, lacking proper sources that is necessary for an article to be considered ‘high quality’. However, Wikipedia has a set of policies identifying types of information appropriate for inclusion. Wikipedia articles do not attempt to determine an objective truth on their subjects, but rather to describe them impartially from different viewpoints.

Real Time Information
Several web sites provide real time information about current and incoming events (e.g. RSS) in the world. However, it is quite difficult to have a wide source of real time information related to a specific location.

Intelligent Transportation Systems
Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) refer to transportation systems which use the new ITC technologies (sensory capabilities, memory, communications, information processing) to address and alleviate transportation congestion problems. A very powerful example of ITS is the one available for the city of London ‘Transport for London’ (www.tfl.gov.uk). It gives real time travel news like: timetables, subway’s disruption information, planned works, etc, both on the web and on mobile devices.

Services like eBay give the users the ability to sell/buy products through the Internet from one side to the other of the world. These services work very well if a delay of some days for the shipment is accepted. There are however several transactions that require the real time constraint and that are possible only with a direct interaction between humans.

Jogging Path Scenario
Caption left: Wanting to go jogging Tom looks at the WikiCity map to get suggestions on routes considering air quality,
traffic calm paths and his physical condition.
Caption middle: The WikiCity map suggests three jogging routes considering air quality, traffic density
and Tom’s physical condition indicating an approximate time and starting from Tom’s current position.
Caption right: Tom chooses his preferred route for the day and sets of for a run. By choosing one route,
he can decide whether to record his choice for later and leave suggestions for others.

Semantic Web
The Semantic Web (www.w3.org/2001/sw) is a project and vision of the World Wide Web Consortium to extend the current Web, so that "information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation". This is important, as the mix of content on the web and in applications built using web architectures is shifting from exclusively human-oriented content to computer-mediated content. In the Semantic Web, data is defined and linked in a way that enables its use for more effective discovery, automation, integration, and re-use across various applications.

Device Interface study. WikiCity explores different interface modalities that create connections between the
virtual data and the actual physical world where these data is accessed by users. Interfaces to WikiCity can be
more closely positioned to the built environment, to moving vehicles or to the user. Functional elements of the 2D
display interface include: search field, ‘local’ distance range indicator, time range indicator and a results area.

Web 2.0
Web 2.0 is referred to a new generation of internet services that exhibit new characteristics like:
  • ‘network as platform’ — delivering (and allowing users to use) applications entirely through a Web browser (see e.g. Google Docs at docs.google.com);
  • users owning the data on the site and exercising control over that data;
  • an architecture of participation and democracy that encourages users to add value to the application as they use it (the basic concept of Wiki);
  • a rich, interactive, user-friendly interface based on Ajax or similar frameworks;
  • some social-networking aspects.

The system is based on a common, semantically defined, format for interchange of locational data and a distributed
platform able to collect and manage such data in real time. The latest W3C trends: Semantic Web and Web Services
Composition, provide the basis for developing and maintaining such platform.

Service Oriented Architecture
Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is an emerging paradigm for coordinating and utilizing distributed and heterogeneous services. Within this context, the Web Services technologies are designed to support interoperable, machine-to-machine interaction over a network. The Web Services are platform independent systems which use standard network technologies to consent the interoperability between distributed and heterogeneous services in a transparent and flexible way. An opportune cooperation of web services can be used to manage and process data provided by different sources in a transparent way.

Location & Time-sensitive Data
The internet as we now know it works very well to retrieve information on a vast number of topics at anytime from anywhere in the world. This ‘anytime’ and ‘anywhere’, ironically, is also one of its limitations. In fact, there are several transactions that are location and time sensitive, some examples might be:
  • a person who wants to decide the transport to use from his current position in order to reach a certain destination in the shortest time, taking into account the actual traffic condition and further events;
  • a person who wants to be updated about the events that are happening or are going to happen in his present surroundings;
  • a person who would like to buy/rent a service/product, in a situation where the real time constraint is important (thinking about taxi rides, car sharing but also specific products needed in that very moment nearest to you).
In these cases, the information that nowadays can be stored on the web cannot allow to process such transactions. The WikiCity project aims to answer such needs, making possible to process location & time sensitive transactions.
The WikiCity project aims at creating a common format for interchange of real-time location-based data and a distributed platform able to collect, manage and provide such data in real time. In this way the city’s most informative real-time map can be created, letting users broadcast their location and have site-specific information pushed on them per request. WikiCity can be divided into a number of manageable channels (layers) like mobility, events, aggregate information, and whatever is most useful and efficient for users to search and access the geospatial content they’re looking for.

‘Real Time Rome’ mobile phone usage during the Madonna concert.

Instead of starting the implementation of the project by a top-down approach such as the definition of standards we consider a bottom-up approach in terms of a case study that allows for experimenting with the platform. For the development of WikiCity a city will be chosen whose local authority becomes a key partner and active agent in the entire process which then is open to and involves potentially all city inhabitants and businesses in the given metropolitan area.

WikiCity Rome interface.

We aim to acquire data from: 1. telecom operators, such as aggregate mobile phones location data and further users information; 2. public transport (bus, subway, train), such as vehicles' locations, paths and time schedules; 3. companies, which have real-time location information of a number of vehicles (e.g. car fleet management, taxi,…); 4. businesses, which want to provide services/products that are location-time sensitive; 5. local authorities, which can add information about upcoming events, activities or environmental conditions; and 6. any private individual, who can upload information on general interest, on events, about requests or offerings.

Important for the launch and successful development of such a project is giving and having access to a large critical mass of users. Think of the ‘chat’ phenomenon with no people to chat with or Wikipedia with no one writing content. The aim of this kind of development is to think big, start small and scale up fast.

Design Concept And Scenarios
WikiCity is about envisioning new application scenarios on the basis of a technology potential involved in location and time-sensitive information. These scenarios are rooted within the social context of a city for which we have identified three main element groups involved which are
  • Agents - private individuals, associations,local authorities, companies, non-profit Organizations;
  • Environment - city architecture, infrastructures, landscape, waterways, climatic conditions;
  • Technology features - positioning, detecting movement, detecting interaction, evaluating density, visualizing, sensing environment values.
Subsequently we intersect capacities and requirements of these three element groups, the various agents involved, the specific environmental conditions they find themselves operating in and the potential of new technologies.
Access Modality - Interfaces
Just as important as the information that can be presented in various circumstances in relation to a city map, the very way the information is made accessible determines the effective outcome and relevant acceptance of the project as such. For this reason WikiCity explores different interface modalities that create connections between the virtual data and the actual physical world where these data is accessed by users. Interfaces to WikiCity can be more closely positioned to the built environment in terms of interior spaces (Desktop PC, Wall projections,...) and or outdoor spaces (info totem, facade display,...); they can be linked to moving vehicles (public transportation, car infotainment centre,...) or they can be closely located to the user himself (Smartphone, PDA, PC Laptop,...). The different interface modalities are determined by the application scenario and the involved agents, the type of data and the environmental context within which thescenario is located. A multimodal interface approach shall be followed combining different input and output methodologies. For the actual project implementation how_ever, available technology, project partners and time constrains will determine astep by step approach to integrate the entire range of interface modalities. We shall therefore distinguish two main groups regarding interface design for WikiCity: 2D display interfaces on the one hand and genuinely multimodal interfaces on the other.

This paper presents work in progress about the WikiCity project. From a conceptual analysis, the benefits of real-time location-sensitive information to city inhabitants seem fairly clearly indicating how this could contribute to the efficiency of various real-world situations. Critical aspects have emerged however as to how this new form of information may impact some situations in terms of distributing and diffusing or concentrating attention of users. Will WikiCity lead to more people attempting to be at the same place at the same time or in an increasing number of different places in diverse times? Further analysis of such potential situations will feed back in the design of the way real-time location-sensitive information is communicated and made accessible.

While aiming at the construction of a diffused network structure we have seen that for the initial start-up phase a hybrid system is necessary, which combines the two different approaches of the centralized database and those located within the internal network and in the service providers’ servers. We aim also to use the potentialities of ontologies and distributed services orchestration to tackle the problem of data exchanging, filtering and processing. Since the implementation of a system such as WikiCity is gradual, regarding interface design we have taken the position of identifying two distinct phases, the first of which being a 2D interface design appropriate for already widely deployed communication devices. The second approach addresses access modality to virtual data in a broader vision taking into account multimodal interface design such as has been attempted by different research groups under the name of ‘tangible user interfaces’.

Carlo RattiI, Francesco Calabrese and Kristian Kloeckl are working at SENSEable City Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, U.S.A. For more information see http://senseable.mit.edu/.