Part III: Future Health, Future Cities – Intel Physical Computing Module at IDE

by Chiara Garattini & Han Pham

Read Part I

Read Part II

In the third and final edition of our Future Cities, Future Health blog series, we will look at the final theme around Mapping Cities (Creatively) which showcases the creative ideas of allocating healthcare resources and using sound to produce insights into complex health data as part of the physical computing module on the Innovation Design and Engineering Masters programme run in conjunction between Imperial College and the Royal College of Arts (RCA).

Mapping cities (creatively)

In considering how to allocate resources, we also need to understand where resources are most needed, and how this changes dynamically within a city.

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Figure 1. Ambulance Density Tracker

Antoni Pakowski asked how to distribute ambulances within a city to shorten response times for critical cases, and suggested this could be supported by anonymous tracking of people via their mobile phones. The expected service window of ambulance arrival in critical care cases is 8 minutes. However, in London, only around 40 percent of calls meet that target. This may be due to ambulances being tied to a static base station. How can the location of the ambulance change as people density changes across a city?

The ambulance density tracker (Figure 1) combined a mobile router and hacked Pirate Box to retrieve anonymously the IP of phones actively seeking Wi-Fi to create a portable system to track the density of transient crowds. The prototype was designed to only rely upon one point of data within a certain region, requiring less processing than an embedded phone app. He also created a scaled down model of the prototype, to suggest a future small device that could potentially be affixed to static and moving infrastructure such as taxis within the city.

Although the original use case needs additional design work to be clearer, the prototype itself as a lightweight, anonymous device that allows for a portable proxy of transient crowd density may be useful as a complementary technology for other design projects geared toward designing for impromptu and ad hoc health resources within a city based on audience shifts.

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Figure 2. 'Citybeat'

The second project in this category is called ‘Citybeat’ by student Philippe Hohlfeld (Figure 2). Philippe wanted to look at the sound of a city and create not only ‘sound’ maps of the city, but also capturing the ‘heartbeat’ of a city by exploring ‘sonified’ feedback from it. His thinking originated from three distinct scientific endeavours: a) turning data from the Higgs Boson Atlas preliminary data at CERN into a symphony to celebrate the connectedness of different scientific fields; b) turning solar flares into music at the University of Michigan to produce new scientific insights; and c) a blind scientist at NASA turning gravitational fields of distant stars into sound to determine how they interact.

The project looked specifically at the Quality of Life Index (safety, security, general health, culture, transportation, etc.) and tried to attribute sounds to different elements so to create a ‘tune’ for each city. Sonification is good for finding trends and for comparison between two entities. What we most liked of the project though, was the idea of using sound rather than visual tools to produce insights into complex data.

Personal data from wearables, for example, is generally often in visual dashboard. Even though these are meant to simplify data fruition, they not always do. Sound could be quicker than visual displays in expressing, for example, rapid or slow progress (e.g. upbeat) or regress (e.g. downbeat). In the current landscape of information overload, exploring sound as alternative way of summarizing usage is something we thought very interesting.

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Figure 3. 'Bee gate'

Finally, the last selected project in this list is also one of the most unusual ones. Student James Batstone wanted to think of how bees interact with polluted environments and how they could be used as part of reclamation or decontamination programmes. He imagined a city (or territory) abandoned due to pollution, and of using bees to collect and analyse pollen to establish whether the territory was ready for being reclaimed to human habitation.

He built a prototype with ‘bee gates’ that would allow for the harmless capturing of pollen from the individuals insects when returning to the hive (Figur3). He also theorised to complement this with an automated software that used cameras to track and automatically analyse their dance to establish provenance. What we liked about this project is the imaginative idea of using bees to monitor air and land quality by analysing vegetation through their pollen, as well as radiation and pollutants in honey, to create maps of lands quality levels. Using natural resources and occurring events to complement what technology can do (and vice versa) is the way to achieve sustainable solutions in the long term.

Final thoughts

As part of our work at Intel, we collaborate with the world’s top universities to look at the future of cities with an eye toward the intersection of technology, environment, and social sustainability. In our groups one can find entrepreneurs, designers, hacktivists, engineers, data artists, architects and more.

We seek to support the same diversity of inspiration in today’s students as the future technology innovators by tapping into how to connect creativity to the technology for more vibrant, connected cities and communities. In many ways, working with first year master’s students is a refreshing perspective of how to open these questions with a beginner’s mind-set by suggesting how embrace simplicity in the face of rising information – just because our digital traces and data footprint will be increasing, our time to juggle what that means won’t.

Physical computing is coming into play in new ways, more often. It will not be enough to get lost in a screen – the interface of tomorrow will be everywhere, and interactions leap off screens into the real world. ‘Future Health, Future Cities’ suggested how to consider the role of physical computing in helping create more sustainable services by, for example, making transparent what and where the need for services are, by exploring how to communicate simply and well new urban information streams, and, last but not least, by reflecting on how to deliver resources where it will be most needed in a constantly changing city.

*Concepts described are for investigational research only.

**Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.