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Above Clematis Street in Downtown West Palm Beach, sensors mounted on black poles are recording and tracking the movement of pedestrians, drivers and pests like raccoons.

Posters with QR codes alongside the sensors direct residents to a website with information about a new project that could improve mobility, traffic efficiency and public safety.

It builds on an existing surveillance program implemented in 2019, which deployed sensors to collect Wi-Fi signals and cell phone location data. This next phase would include cameras taking video recordings and the use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition software — and that gives even Jason Hallstrom pause.

“I do not love the idea of having video recorded of me in a public space. That makes me feel nervous ... And I think that many residents and many visitors feel the same way," said Hallstrom, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Florida Atlantic University.

Hallstrom is also deputy director and chief research officer of the Engineering Research Center for Smart Streetscapes, or CS3 — the center behind this new project. The center is led by five colleges and universities, including FAU as well as Columbia University in New York City.

“It's ultimately helpful for residents to understand traffic patterns," Hallstrom said, explaining the potential benefits. "It's helpful to understand illegal dumping. It's helpful to understand the neighborhoods where the patterns of raccoon activity lie."

The National Science Foundation, a federal research agency, is funding the 10-year, $54 million plan with the aim of turning West Palm Beach into a "smart city." New York City and New Brunswick, N.J., are also participating.

The population in downtown West Palm Beach has doubled to 10,000 people over the last five years, making it a prime location for the mobility project.

In a statement, West Palm Beach Mayor Keith A. James said he wants to “position the city as a national leader in smart cities” and to enable “safer crosswalks, to improve transportation and parking, to assist pedestrians with disabilities.”

But city officials and others overseeing the project say a critical step in implementing the plan is to seek public input from the community, learning more about residents' concerns related to privacy, data security and their Constitutional rights.

“We have a prototype of this that we plan to share with the community to get feedback before this would ever be rolled out at scale," Hallstrom said.

How will the technology work — and who can access data?

Hallstrom said the new sensors will capture people, but the center is working on a technology that will shield the recording of people's faces — "de-identify” individuals — producing “a digital representation that mirrors what's happening on the streetscape.”

The “digital cousins” are "2D or 3D avatars — just generic cars, generic people, on top of that scene — and you can then represent to the world, to the public, what's happening within that intersection to collect meaningful analytic data that's useful to the city and to residents,” Hallstrom said.

He said the data will be stored in an online cloud.

It could be used, for example, to make bus routes more efficient or provide high-speed internet hotspots.

The project is a continuation of the city’s previous "smart city" efforts to improve mobility by tracking people’s movement and transportation in the downtown area — Clematis Street, Rosemary Avenue, Banyan Boulevard and Tamarind Avenue.

The Mobility Intelligence Project (MIP), unanimously approved by the city commission in 2019, studies traffic patterns and tracks people — their cellphones, Apple watches — who stop at various locations and helps businesses market to those people.

The MIP, part of a partnership with FAU, the Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation of Palm Beach and Martin Counties, currently uses 54 advanced sensors and machine learning technology to measure the strength of wireless mobile device signals and determine the position of the people and objects without capturing personal data, Hallstrom said.

Christopher Roog, executive director of West Palm Beach's Community Redevelopment Agency, said officials “share some access to those cameras with FAU in order to create that digital cousin to understand mobility patterns.”

Through a subpoena, West Palm Beach police can access the data to track a suspect’s movement. Data from sensors that exist now are actually part of the West Palm Beach Police Department's real time crime center.

Amid concerns over accuracy and bias, other cities like Boston, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, have banned the use of facial recognition technologies, due to human bias baked in the algorithm, which has led to false arrests in some cases.

Hallstrom told WLRN the West Palm Beach police will not have access to this new data.

Hallstrom said it's not yet clear all the ways the technology will be used, because public input is required before those decisions can be made.

"In a community driven center where you do not roll out applications until you have community buy-in, that means that you can’t upfront describe exactly what the applications will be," he said.

Reasonable privacy, security fears

Digital experts say it’s important to understand the potential harms that might not be so obvious. Advanced technologies, such as automated license plate readers and facial recognition scanners, raise reasonable fears over tracking and potential discrimination.

With "smart city" projects, "three main concerns tend to be around what types of data are being collected from people, how long that data is being retained and who will eventually have access to it — both in terms of law enforcement and also potentially private companies,” said Will Greenberg, staff technologist and researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties group focused on digital rights.

These are what city officials say they will address as they prepare a series of workshops during an upcoming public awareness campaign.

If law enforcement agencies get access to the data, they could potentially track people without warrant, Greenberg said.

He believes that would be “a violation of people's Fourth Amendment protections,” which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure by the government.

Police could “mass identify people at protests, which can also have a chilling effect on people's ability to express their First Amendment rights,” he said.

"And facial recognition technologies have a long history of giving false positives and misidentifying, especially people of color, based on training data,” Greenberg said.

During a public update last month, West Palm Beach Commissioner Shalonda Warren said some residents may not be as excited about this project as officials are and hope “we’re just going to continue to reassure them that we’re doing everything reasonably possible to protect their information.”<

Engaging the community first

Roog, who is leading efforts to educate the public, told WLRN that Warren is “completely right” about citizen privacy concerns.

“Part of it is to go out to the community and say exactly what it's going to be used for and to give them a level of comfort and understanding prior to deployment on that technology,” Roog said, “so that we can answer all those questions.”

“It can be fully transparent. If at any point they become uncomfortable with it, they can let us know,” he added.

Roog said the Knight Foundation was sensitive to community engagement and reached out to the city in an effort to help officials with their communication efforts and create community standards for how these technologies are deployed.

With support from the foundation, officials brought on Helpful Places, a Toronto-based technology firm, which worked on another South Florida project: The Underline, a 10-mile multi-use public art park beneath the Metrorail in Miami.

Helpful Places uses an open-source communication standard called Digital Trust for Places and Routines to “make it easier for residents to understand the different technologies that will be designed and deployed by the Engineering Research Center,” said Jacqueline Lu, president and co-founder of Helpful Places.

The goal is to help West Palm Beach “make visible and legible these invisible layers of technology that are part of our communities," she said.

The QR codes posted near the sensors lead to a transparency portal, a dedicated website that provides public information about the data that's being collected, such as location, coordinates, and time intervals. For now, the site is incomplete, providing Wikipedia definitions to technological terms.

“Currently it only shows the technologies that have been deployed along Clematis, but in the future, as more technologies are developed and planned for installation, they will be listed here,” Lu said.

Smart city systems can too often obscure decisions about what data to collect or for whom, which can be “made pretty quickly and invisibly,” Lu cautioned.

“Whereas when we [cities] build new types of infrastructure, like roads or parks, these are changes to the way a community works that a resident can actually see.”

Roog said the city is in the process of scheduling more focus groups involving community stakeholders, designing neighborhood surveys and installing more street signage throughout the heart of the downtown area.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Wilkine Brutus

Quelle/Source: WLRN Public Media, 30.05.2024

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