New York-based Placemeter is turning disused smartphones into big data

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A city window overlooking the street has always been a score in its own right, what with so many apartments stuck opening onto back alleys and dumpsters and fire escapes. And now, a company wants to straight up monetize the view. New York startup Placemeter is paying city residents up to $50 a month for street views captured via old smartphones. The idea is to quantify sidewalk life in the service of making the city a more efficient place.

“Measuring data about how the city moves in real time, being able to make predictions on that, is definitely a good way to help cities work better,” says founder Alex Winter. “That’s the vision of Placemeter—to build a data platform where anyone at any time can know how busy the city is, and use that.”

Here’s how it works: City residents send Placemeter a little information about where they live and what they see from their window. In turn, Placemeter sends participants a kit (complete with window suction cup) to convert their unused smartphone into a street sensor, and agrees to pay cash so long as the device stays on and collects data. The more action outside—the more shops, pedestrians, traffic, and public space—the more the view is worth.

On the back end, Placemeter converts the smartphone images into statistical data using proprietary computer vision. The company first detects moving objects (the green splotches in the video below) and classifies them either as people or as 11 types of vehicles or other common urban elements, such as food carts. A second layer of analysis connects this movement with behavioral patterns based on the location—how many cars are speeding down a street, for instance, or how many people are going into a store.

Placemeter knows your first question—Isn’t this invasion of privacy?—and insists that it’s taking all measures to ensure anonymity. The smartphone sensors don’t capture anything that goes on in a meter’s home (such as conversations), and the street images themselves are analyzed by the computer, then deleted without being stored. The only thing that ends up saved in the company’s system, says Winter, is the rough data.

Source Atlantic CityLab. This 7 second video is a year old, but it gives a glimpse of the power of the Placemeter Traffic Analysis.

The visualization NYC Taxis: A Day in the Life has gone server-crashing-viral. It was constructed by NYC developer and city-data-wonk Chris Whong (details here). Correction: I’m including Whong’s work here because the reference was published on the Placemeter Blog. As you’ll see in the comments Chris is admired at-, but isn’t employed at Placemeter.

4 thoughts on “New York-based Placemeter is turning disused smartphones into big data

  1. Just because people and vehicles are not identifiable in the images doesn’t mean that they can’t be tracked using such images.  Aerial drones, unable to resolve individuals as more than single pixels, have nevertheless been used to trace their movements.  There is a considerable risk of the “big data” revealing much more than what one little camera can see.

  2. You are absolutely correct. A city wide network of video observation points could derive all sorts of identity-tracking badness. If Placemeter is going to make it they have to establish a gold-plated trust relationship. It’s challenging for Google to do that (i.e., Germany).
    My trust for Google is purely incentive-based, because I believe that even a slight niggle of worry about Google’s trustworthiness would be the end of their business. As a startup Placemeter is so small people may not be believe the incentive is strong enough. We’ll see.

  3. Hi, David from Placemeter here. Thank you for the write-up!

    Steve, we’re working hard on building trust with the public, and you can see our first steps with our privacy principles here: placemeter.com/privacy

    One correction: Chris doesn’t work for Placemeter, but we’re big fans of his stuff!

    • Thanks for your comments David. Your privacy principles look fine to me, and I’m hopeful that your trust-building efforts are successful. Personally I think the ‘contract’ between the public and Placemeter will work so long as people are excited about the public benefits of Placemeter product. I’m excited, so I’m in!

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