Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2017.

Sensing the Future

An MIT researcher talks big data and its applications ahead of C&E keynote speech


Data defines the world today. From the dawn of time to 2003, humans generated roughly 5 billion gigabytes of data. Now, we generate that amount less than every 24 hours, according to Erin Baumgartner, assistant director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab. NFPA Journal spoke with Baumgartner about how big data is shaping the future and how her lab’s research into big data and its uses might help first responders. Baumgartner is one of two keynote speakers who will kick of the Conference & Expo on June 4.


Listen to audio from NFPA Journal’s interview with Erin Baumgartner. In this clip, Baumgartner discusses some of the projects her lab at MIT, the Senseable City Lab, is working on and why first responders should care.

What’s your definition of big data?

Big data refers to the massive pools of data that are being generated across spectrums in our cities and in our world. That could relate to telecommunications data, financial data, health and environmental systems, weight systems, etc.

Could you give an example of what a big data set can tell us?

Let’s focus on telecommunications data. By having our cellphones and our smartphones on, we leave traces as we go through a city. There are traces of our activity, traces of where we’ve been. And if you zoom out from the level of the individual to the level of the city or the level of the country, that becomes an enormous amount of data that’s very rich in information and interesting to study. By analyzing huge pools of data, we’re able to detect patterns in things like human mobility and activity that were never seen before.

What are the challenges in working with these huge pools of data?

This enormous amount of data poses a lot of challenges but also a lot of opportunities. There are questions like how do you store it, who pays to keep it, what is the environmental impact of storing all this data. There are also more existential questions like what do you use it for, what type of questions can you ask of it, are there ethical or privacy concerns with studying all this data.

What are the opportunities?

By looking at it we’re able to understand humanity in new ways and find methods to make our cities and our world more efficient, greener, more pleasurable to live in, and more equitable.

Tell me about the Senseable City Lab.

The Senseable City Lab began about 10 years ago. We’re part of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. We are currently the largest lab in that department. Our aim is to study the effect of digital technologies on the urban environment. We have at any given time about 15–20 projects. We have about 35 researchers. The people here are not only urban planners, architects, and designers, but also mathematicians, theoretical physicists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and civil engineers.

What are some notable projects the lab has worked on?

C&E General Session
NFPA Conference & Expo, Boston, June 4-7, 2017

The Future is Now!
Sunday, June 4, 1 p.m.

Erin Baumgartner, MIT; Tom Koulopoulos, Delphi Group

One that I’ll probably talk about [at C&E] has to do with optimizing transportation systems. The project is called Hubcab. For the project, we got the data for over 150 million taxi rides which took place in New York City over the course of one year, performed by 13,500 cabs. We wanted to understand the potential to share trips within this pool of rides. By analyzing the data, we found that if people were to submit to two parameters—sharing their ride with another person and waiting five minutes—90 percent of those rides can be shared. We then developed a mathematical model that allows us to apply this algorithm, this model, to any city around the world with a few basic inputs. We don’t even need the cab data to determine the shareability of rides in any city around the world, which is very exciting.

What do these results mean?

This incredible capacity to share trips could have major implications for congestion in New York. Decreasing the traffic in the city could have major implications for companies such as FedEx, as well as first responders who rely on the fluidity of the streets for the success of their professions.

What’s another exciting project?

We’re engaged in a project called Sensing Lights, where we have capitalized on the preexisting, ubiquitous infrastructure of street lights to embed sensor systems that allow us to detect things like air pollution, flows of people, traffic, etc. By overlaying three data sets from regular vision cameras, thermal cameras, and air pollution sensors, we’ve determined a way to optimize the traffic-light cycle for the city of Cambridge, [Massachusetts]. We focused on a specific intersection in Cambridge—a particularly dangerous intersection. By installing these sensors and monitoring the flow of traffic, the flow of people, and the air quality, we were able to tell the city of Cambridge that they should change their traffic-light cycle from about 37 seconds to 43 seconds to increase the input of vehicles and people and decrease the pollution that people are exposed to at that intersection.

Why should first responders care about the work the lab’s doing?

The fact that there are currently close to 50 billion connected devices worldwide, such as sensors and other things that are connected to the Internet, allows all organizations an opportunity to understand their systems better—for example, to understand a building and its infrastructure and the integrity of that infrastructure and when it is likely to fail. That should be very interesting to the fire service. Also, thinking about things like traffic cycles, if you’re trying to respond to a fire in New York City and traffic is moving at 4 mph, that’s a problem. But if you can find a way to optimize the system and remove the cars by sharing rides, that matters for the fluidity of the city and it certainly matters for police and fire and EMS.

What do you hope people take away from your talk at C&E?

The visuals we provide and the storytelling can be very lively and exciting. I’m hoping that we leave people with something to think about—a new glimpse into the future of our shared urban environment—and something they want to share with other folks. I may talk about some of the things I’ve just mentioned, but our work changes so quickly and we have so many projects going on. There may be other things that we currently have in the works that may come to a results phase later in the spring that I’ll cover at C&E.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Senseable City Lab