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Data-collecting benches are making their way into cities
A pair of USB ports on a console on the front of the bench provides juice from the solar panel mounted at lap level between the seats. Who wouldn’t want to hang out at a bench like this? It certainly catches the eye of passersby. What these kids might not realize, however, is that this bench is watching them back.
— Landscape Architecture Magazine
“Smart” benches are spreading—recently a series of them, manufactured by Soofa, was installed in a tiny neighborhood park next to I-77 on the north end of Charlotte, North Carolina with the intent of the neighborhood’s analysis and redevelopment.
Soofa, founded in 2014 by three graduates of MIT Media Lab, is one of a handful of companies designing data-collecting street furniture. Their solar-powered benches register Wi-Fi enabled devices within 150 feet of them, sending data back to an office building in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the sensors can’t access personal information from your phone, they pick up and remember your devices’ MAC address. The technology allows cities and urban planners to count users of various public spaces, identifying when and for how long they’re visited, and potentially optimizing their design.
“The line between collecting data for a valid public purpose and the unreasonable surveillance of private citizens can be tough to tease out. Beyond clear dangers like hacking and data breaches, and underlying concerns about private corporations somehow benefiting from data collected on the taxpayer’s dime, are existential questions about privacy as a basic human right. “