5 questions with Christine Outram of City Innovation Group on the Internet of Action


Christine Outram of City Innovation Group discussed a range of topics with us including using real-time data as a social support system and how the UN is developing an understanding of new data sets and their use in assessing the impacts of crisis on different sectors of the population.

This is the first segment of Postscapes Interview Series with some of the top people influencing the Internet of Things.


Are you still currently working at MIT?

I am currently a research associate at the SENSEable City Lab, MIT, where I have been working since 2008. However, in September I will be leaving to run my consulting firm – City Innovation Group – full time.

Is your main focus still on the Copenhagen Wheel?

5 questions with Christine Outram of City Innovation Group on the Internet of Action

Yes, it has been mostly on the Copenhangen Wheel, although I am currently in transition – we got held up by a number of things including various contracts with funding people that meant that we couldn’t commercialize it, so that is something that we are now looking into and developing the actual business plan for, and raising the money to build more prototypes. Stay tuned!

You told me a little bit of your current background but could you tell me a little bit more about how you choose this career path?

Sure, my background is actually architecture and urban design and before attending MIT, I was working in Australia in these fields. But, I always felt that the way we made decisions in city planning and design could be a little bit arbitrary. I would get frustrated with people saying “oh lets design a city square, how big should we make it”? ” Well lets make it as big as the one in this city in Italy”. At the same time, I’ve always been interested in computing and I felt that there was a possibility for us to make decisions through utilizing some of the power that computers can give us. I was also of the mind that computers are not just a tool to do things faster or more efficiently than a human can do, but actually they can process information in a way that can give us insights into how we can make decisions, particular in our built environment.

With this in mind I landed at MIT to undertake a SMarchS degree, or Science Masters of Architectural Studies, that is designed for architects who want to do two years more research after their professional degree. My research here was focused on integrating technology into cities and this is what led me to work at the SENESable City Lab, a multidisciplinary lab where you are not only working with architects and planners, but network analysts, interaction designers, software developers, and mechanical and electrical engineers. Also, one of the motto’s of the lab is to “not just talk about things but to go out there and build it” and it really fits in with my own sensibilities of getting things done and out there for people to see.

Has the data and design process started catching up to some of your original visions you had when starting?

You know since coming to MIT, I’ve become less interested in physically building the built environment and designing cities, and I’ve become more interested in mobilizing people to create change in their cities. That is,mobilizing communities of people from the bottom up and using real time information to connect citizens so that they can make better decisions themselves. And secondly, I am interested in how our institutions and large non-profits use real time information in a top-down process to increase efficiency in systems and streamline resource allocation etc. In other words, I am interested in how we can make more effective decisions in cities through creating a feedback loop of information, both for individuals, but also for governance.

Have you been pleased with the community output and response from your last few projects?

We had an overwhelmingly positive response to the Copenhagen Wheel project, and I think the reason for this wasn’t the use of sensors and real time information, or the motors and batteries. It is because we designed something that people could see themselves wanting to use – it’s not clunky, or hard wired, and you can retrofit your own bike with it – and it also helped overcome some of the reasons why people don’t cycle – topography, distance, a sense of community, and infrastructure. Of course, we also get push-back from people who don’t want “all that fancy technology” on their bikes, but at the end of the day, our aim was also to imagine a future of cycling with technology in 10 years from now, and we feel certain that this future will include using your phone to control an everyday object like a bike.

I am also really excited by Los Angeles. In many respects, LA is not a leader in the open data or smart city movement, but my mission here is to connect the dots between the very motivated tech community, and the great number of individuals we have that are improving quality of life in their community through initiatives like Food Forward, or CicLAvia. The first few events we have held with these groups of people have been really positive, and I can already see the cogs turning for these people as they ask the question: how can we use technology and real-time data today to support ourselves in ways that we couldn’t do before?

Where do you see the IoT technologies creating the most impact, any area in particular?

There is probably not just one sector that will see the most impact, we’ll see the most impact where we see the most value for people. For instance, we’ve already seen in logistics that there is a lot of value in automation and efficiency through using RFID tags or through understanding tracking globally so this is clear demonstration of where value leads to impact.

You know, I also think we will see huge impacts in health, especially as vast numbers of Americans get older, and are searching for ways to maintain quality of life. Overall though, we’ll see the impacts where people want it and where there are champions who actually go out and look for it and fight for it.

There’s definitely a business case in here as well, particular as much of this stuff is using big data sets, and there’s going to be value in businesses sharing their big data sets and understanding how it can be a value to their bottom line as well as to their consumers and their customers. That’s one side of it. Then there’s the user generated data which will be the other side of it, the Quantifed Self stuff.

5 questions with Christine Outram of City Innovation Group on the Internet of Action

With the Copenhagen Wheel it seems like the practical biking piece was there for the individuals, can you speak more about the sensor systems and its data?

Yes, we wanted to design a bike that would make the biking experience more pleasurable for individuals and would therefore get more people on bikes. We achieved this by addressing the primary reasons why people weren’t getting on bikes. Firstly, we used an electric motor, batteries and regeneration to help people get over hills and across distances. Secondly we integrated sensors so that you can also collect and share information about road conditions, pot holes, environmental conditions and congestion etc, which was information you could keep for yourself or share with friends or other cyclists. But we also started thinking about the real-time data as a social support system. For instance if you know that you are crossing paths of friends, or there are other cyclists, and you are part of this green mile system, (where you are rewarded for biking), you are part of a community and that helps you want to get on your bike and ride more. It’s a way of feeling safer also, because you feel part of a community and even if there might be dangers out there on the road, you feel like others are facing the same dangers and overcoming them, so you can too.

At the same time, we have done quite a bit of post-research using the distributed sensor system we have on the bikes, in cities, to understand urban heat islands, and traffic congestion. Our premise here is that individual cyclists can share the information that their wheel is collecting, thereby allowing cities to have fine-grained data sets about environmental impact, or transportation issues, from which they can make better policy decisions. The problem is that it’s still difficult to scale, and we won’t see the true potential of these systems until the sensors become even cheaper and better calibrated.

Still, at the moment cities like Copenhagen have three large environmental air quality monitors in the city, they are fairly high level where they are located on the top of building or traffic lights and they are extremely expensive ($50,000-$100,000 each) high precision and they give you this macro data about what is happening in the environment. In contrast, our vision was to have perhaps thousands of environmental sensors on bikes roaming through the city and giving us this crowdsourced, really fine grained environmental information. The problem there is that from a research standpoint we can afford to buy/make a few prototypes, but as a research institute we’re not in the business yet of commercializing that and getting it out there.

The Internet of Things is still very much at a test phase, and it’s only until we tap into the value for people and turn this into a business proposition or mutually beneficial situation, that we are going to see it scale up.

So the data has the potential to offset the initial costs to people themselves?

Absolutely, If we can really hone in on the value of this data and how we can make decisions more effectively, then the cost is negligible. It’s just a matter of having somebody who sees the vision of this and will champion it at a high level as well as generating demand from the bottom up too.

Have you had a good reaction from the biking community itself?

I am in charge of the inquires that come in about the bike and we have received thousands of requests. It was actually just featured on the television show “Weeds” (View one of the clips of the bike here), which has generated even more interest even though it’s a funny place to have a product placement.

We get a few reactions from a few different segments; the majority of people who we get inquiries from are males between the ages of 18-30 (these numbers come from our Facebook stats). We also get people who are excited because they used to ride but for whatever reason they can’t anymore, perhaps they are getting older, perhaps they have a physical impediment, but they still want to get on a bike. Or, other people just like the design – it looks good, and they care about how they look when they ride.

Interestingly, we are also approached by pro cyclists who come and want to use the bike for resistance training. Then we have a whole sector of city people and government. People who head-up the environmental department of a city and want to get all of their staff, or their meter-maids on bikes so that they get fine-grained environmental information about their city at the same time as reducing their carbon footprint. Then there are hilly cities who would like a fleet of bikes so that they can do electric bike sharing.

We do get people though, who say to us, “I don’t own a smart-phone, this is totally elitist and what are you doing here?”, but one of the roles that SENSEable City Lab plays is to not necessarily produce incremental research but to imagine what the future of living with technology is like 10 to 15 years for now, and for us 10-15 years from now there is a natural fit between using an everyday object like your phone to control and unlock an object like a bike. There’s going to be a natural fit between the objects we carry around and doing more. Your phone is now your music player and it will definitely become your remote, your keys, the way way that you pay for goods, etc, etc.

Speaking of long term technology, how do you view the term the “Internet of Things”?

It is useful in defining the “Internet of Things” as separate from the “Internet”, or the “web”. So it’s going to be useful in explaining the next iteration of the Internet, but for me it’s not really capturing the power of what this next iteration could do, or what augmenting all of our devices can actually lead to. It would be nice to see us talk less about the object or the network itself “the Internet of Things” and more about what is this going to lead to. So, its kind of the Internet of Action, the Internet of Decision Making , the Internet of Faster Feedback, it’s the Internet of Greater Agility. On the flipside, it could of course be the Internet of control, or the Internet of manipulation, which we have to be equally aware of. These are the kinds of concepts that the Internet of Things is going push us towards, and we need to be aware of outcomes, not just structure.

I see it as good enough for right now, but it does seems likely the phrase may lose its initial appeal.

It will become like the word sustainability or the word sustainable. Within a couple of generations, I don’t think we will even question the fact that things are all connected on the net or that we will have trillions of transistors on earth in the next 10 years. The term The Internet of Things will become obsolete, it will probably still be just the Internet, and we will then have to work out what we will do with the fact that everything will be connected and what use it’s going to have and what value it’s going to bring us.

We also have to work out the privacy side, but as research has shown again and again we are willing to trade privacy loss if we see that there is value and we see that there is protection. For instance, with Loopt people see value in having their location online to their friends, even though their privacy could be compromised.

Also, where there is a lot of untapped value is the data that our private companies hold, and we do need to work out how a company like a telecommunications agency can move beyond giving a large data set to a research institute for analysis in a one-off act. In other words. we need to work on how to have an ongoing relationship between data providers and research institutions, or bodies like the U.N. so that big data sets can be used for good and to push research forward without compromising privacy.

At the end of the day though, there are so many great people working on this problem and my interest lies in not being one of those people doing great work on privacy, but being one of the people doing work on how we can actually use this to make decision making and positive action, how can we alleviate some of the problems we have through harnessing this new wealth and new asset class, that is data.

So you spoke of a few of the projects you have been working on, but do you have anything else that you are excited about, or something up and coming?

5 questions with Christine Outram of City Innovation Group on the Internet of Action

The Copenhagen Wheel is definitely an exciting project that I have been working on for a while now, but working with the UN global pulse team is also exciting, because they are starting to ask some of the hard questions about how we use data for good in the area of global development.

So what the Global Pulse team is doing is developing an understanding of how data can be used to assess the impacts of crises on different sectors of the population. You can imagine if there is a food shortage, traditionally you would have surveys done which could give you information about how people are being impacted, but by the time you get a survey out there and given the costs of getting a survey out, you can’t make an effective decision in real time. The hypothesis here is that if we have a tighter feedback loop of information, that is driven through real time data streams, such as public information on the web, or partnerships with data providers, then we can generate a more detailed understanding of where impact is happening, and create policy decisions that can help alleviate that sooner. This is not to say that we get rid of traditional surveys, just that we now have an opportunity to get a macro picture, from which we can better target response and follow-up with greater agility.

Going back to the Global Pulse, can you give us an example of the on the ground data that you are receiving and working with?

5 questions with Christine Outram of City Innovation Group on the Internet of Action

It is still early days, and Global Pulse is not sending and receiving on the ground data yet. Also, it is important to remember that Global Pulse is a convener in this process, and the aim here is to help governments harness data in responsible ways to alleviate their own problems, rather than having the U.N. as a controlling body for global data.

Having said that, Global Pulse does have a number of research partnerships that are helping to prove their hypothesis, and the data pretty much falls into different categories. You’ve got the cell phone data, data that we thought of as junk data previously, nobody really knew what to do with it, but now we can understand it as a proxy for how people move within space, how social networks form or how information (or dis-information) spreads in a society.

Then you have data such as transaction data, perhaps when I top up my cell phone, how often I top it up, etc. Nathan Eagle has done some amazing work on this where he can show how we can take anonymous information about cell top-ups and can determine how well-off people are in a given area.

There is also PriceStats which is Roberto Rigobon and Pilar Iglesias. With Global Pulse, Price Stats is looking at online prices of bread in South America and have shown that online prices are an early indicator for street-prices, thus allowing you to understand more quickly where, different sectors of the population will be impacted by, for instance, the rising price of bread,

Increasingly, there is also a wealth of social data, sites like Twitter, public Facebook pages, blogs and reports help us understand sentiment and reaction to events. For instance, people write a surprising amount if they lose a job or if they are struggling financially and these can be early indicators about how different crisis are bubbling up within different segments. There is a range of data that I think we are starting to deal with and being able to break into different buckets.

You mentioned PriceStats, TxtEagle, any other shout-outs or interesting people you have been following?

I’m working with Peter Hershbirg who has a real handle on how this data-movement is changing the way we operate in the world. He was at Technorati, and he is now chairman at Re:imagine group. He is also the head of GAFFTA Gray Area Foundation for the Arts which is a great non-profit located in San Fransisco. They are coordinating a four month Summer of Smart program that brings together government, tech-people and urbanists and which I have been involved with and would like to see happen in other cities.

Obviously at the SENSEable City Lab we have a lot of fantastic people too – too many to mention! Already on the IoT list are Vlad and Dominique in Zurich who are the Web of Things guys, and the people I mentioned fromGlobal Pulse are doing great work. Meanwhile, Hillary Mason from Bit.ly, gets this stuff and it would be great to work with her in the future. Not to be forgotten, Mauro Martino, and Aaron Koblin, are two people who are pushing the boundaries of data visualization, which is increasingly important in this field.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

If you would like to contact Christine or learn more about these projects visit City Innovation Group or follow them at @cityinnovation


Christine Outram

Founder of City Innovation Group