Monday, December 22, 2014

Sustainable Cities, Google, and the NSA: The Role of Metadata

A screen capture of Google's geo-mapping of my cell phone metadata.
With an uncertain sigh, I clicked the button to activate my Google tracking on my cell phone.  I wanted to see how accurate the data Google accumulates is, see what it says about me, consider how the internet Timelords might use it (for better or worse), and reflect on the larger role my information has in benefiting our society.

Adjacent is a screen cap of the information Google accumulates, mine being just one user for one day out of  millions using their Android systems.  It's a telling story of an atypical day: I grabbed breakfast with my supervisor in Golden, took some comp time and did a flight lesson primarily practicing runway landings at Centennial Airport, headed to the office for a few hours downtown, and then headed to small groups at my Unitarian church.  Anyone with this data could likely fill in the gaps through gleaning more metadata from Facebook, online purchases, texts, and G-Mail (all pieces in this case Google could have access to).  The image of my daily adventure is just the surface of this data iceberg which runs deep into the cold abyss. 

Ever wonder how Google Maps Traffic gets so specific, with red lines guaranteeing delays as you rush around town for last-minute holiday shopping?  Google's data tracking of the geolocation of my phone goes into their servers, a coded algorithm interprets the data to something like: "Bryce's phone is traveling faster than a brisk walk along roads, therefore he is likely driving," and it's collected as just one sampling of many dozens along those same routes.  Put those routes together, and you get an average speed of traffic.  If it's below the average, that's where those pesky yellow and red lines come into play.

Google Map's Traffic Map for the Denver region.

Google's data gleaning and analysis excites me because the change I want to see is how we work toward making our communities more sustainable.  Cherry Creek (bottom right in the above image) is bludgeoned with holiday shoppers-- so why not find out where they're coming from and explore alternative transportation options from temporary shuttles to free light rail passes?  For longer term thinking-- ask why are people commuting across the city there?  Who are the winners and losers in these scenarios, and how does this access reflect upon race and class for our city?  What types of development could we focus on to provide better balance to the city?  Information is power, and power can create change.  This data is important for making our communities healthier.

Years ago I had a conversation with a man who said he was a contractor for the government, working with information technology.  I offered he worked around building information collection and analysis algorithms for developing individual profiles to determine potential high-risk individuals for national security.  His mouth was agape as I smiled and said, if all the companies are already doing it, I'm sure the federal government is playing catch up.  Companies like Google are easy to pick on, but there are countless others in this game working toward similar goals.  PRISM, Snowden, and NSA became household names since then as cries of accountability continue, but I found myself shrugging it off because they're not the ones I'm worried about.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Welcome to the Journey

The whole world is burning.

Everyday it’s hard not to delve into the news: horrors of murder and mass murder, police brutality, environmental devastation and rampant green-washing, class struggles, racial discrimination, imbalanced governance, and oh so many other examples of injustice swirling about us.  But I would be remiss to go there right away.

This is what world is often portrayed as by the media. 

I don’t believe that vision.

I’ve learned even in the furthest corners of the darkest days there are rays of light to behold.  Where there’s imbalance, there’s a constant struggle to rebalance, collaborate, and appreciate what is and work for what can be.  There’s a struggle for greater health and sustainability of our planet and society, this bringing joy and happiness within interconnected communities across the world.

The challenges of humanity are just a portion of a greater, remarkable picture.  Life, a relentless struggle of adaptation for achieving a balance in the chaos of the cosmos, has borne us.  In return, we’ve destabilized the well-tuned processes and resiliency of life itself as our thin atmosphere warms and countless species disappear forever. 

It’s easy to be overwhelmed with the negative news of the status of the world and society.  I often am as I feel my voice, if I speak out, gets drowned.  But, I remember in the days after dozens of fellow students were murdered on my campus and a temporary memorial was set up on campus to commemorate each life lost; there laid one more stone for the shooter.  He shared this life, too.  Reflection amidst the deepest sorrow imaginable brought about an appreciation of his tormented spirit put to rest embodied in a simple blue-grey limestone block.   Even in the furthest corners of the darkest days there can be light.

Everywhere, every day, there are those rays.  Be it a friendly gesture like holding a door open, an act of lowering one’s carbon footprint, or a life fully committed to civil service without acknowledgement.  Those are the voices we need to hear and be empowered by, yet are being drowned out. 

I want to commit my voice here to finding, reflecting, and bringing together those rays of light.  I think we can drown the darkness, pull down the curtain and together reclaim our voices with renewed empowerment for the betterment of our society and world.  I want to seek out and explore the examples creating progress of a more sustainable world—balancing social equity, environmental balance, and yes—even the economy.  In this mindset, I hope to change our shared focus from the endless negatives to the constructive positives.

This piece is my premise for this blog, my lens of which I will listen, reflect, write, and act.  My goal is to write a piece at least every month, perhaps every two weeks.  I will be collaborating with an amazing individual, Katie, who has similar passions and is on a similar journey.  Together we’re going to share our voices, build off of each other, and likely offer sometimes contrasting views on similar topics.  I should also mention she’s my girlfriend (I’m such a lucky guy). 

I’m Bryce Carter and this is my voice.  Welcome to the journey.