The plan for Google’s Sidewalk Labs in Toronto has continued to attract criticism. The plan for Google’s Sidewalk Labs in Toronto has continued to attract criticism. The company has yet to release a clear picture or detailed explanation of what the “smart neighbourhood” on Toronto’s waterfront will include. So far, it looks as though there will be various forms of sensor technology to collect and analyze data, as well as versatile and shifting buildings and novel transportation systems — all of which seems difficult to imagine.
One thing about smart cities that makes them a challenging topic to engage with is their slippery definition. Another challenge is the inability to visualize them and understand the ubiquity of their reach. This is propagated by technology firms that often fail to share details of their products or their implementation and use by cities.
Most of the publicity on smart cities has been focused on high impact examples, such as Sidewalk Labs. However, the smart city exists all around us, in various forms and in various spaces, and it is critical that we come to understand the “actually existing smart city.”
Mapping smart cities
Our team of researchers from McMaster University and the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic have created an interactive map that allows viewers to navigate through various smart-city technologies in Canada.
The map makes visible the scope of smart-city strategies that have been implemented across Canada. The map filters results based on location and type of smart-city technology, and allows users to read through the details of each technology including any potential privacy concerns. Residents can also upload their own experiences and encounters with smart-city technologies.
Mapping out smart city technologies has demonstrated that many types are invisible to the public eye. For example: traffic noise monitors (Edmonton); sensors that count people and analyze their movements in built environments (Toronto); trash bins that alert city waste management of their status (Winnipeg); and smart benches which potentially track data from users (Newmarket).
Many such technologies are not broadly disclosed or understood, putting the public at risk of privacy violations and unwanted surveillance. It is not even clear to researchers what data is being collected by these devices, making the task of understanding their possible negative impacts nearly impossible.
This impossibility is a key setback in the attempt to foster a democratic deliberative process around the creation of smart-city spaces across the country. In order to further the conversation in a meaningful and inclusive way, it becomes imperative to pursue strategies of education and exploration around smart-city practices.
The need for public awareness
In light of these developments, it is important for researchers to point to the ways in which one can see what smart-city technologies are and where they exist within city space. Having this knowledge affords people a tangible awareness regarding the places within which these technologies live — spaces that might otherwise feel invisible or elusive. The map we created was compiled with a view to expand on this sentiment and contribute to the public education on smart cities in Canada.
Outside of academia, there is an emerging advocacy network which does thorough and important work regarding smart cities and their potential negative effects. The Digital Justice Lab and Tech Reset Canada are both working on multiple campaigns to both broaden public awareness of smart cities and highlight the concerns that are born of these emergent urban technologies. Both groups have been critical of Sidewalk Labs and continue to provide a much-needed voice in the debate.
Most recently, these criticisms have coalesced around #BlockSidewalk, a campaign that looks to prevent Sidewalk Labs from developing Toronto’s waterfont while encouraging a citizen-centred and democratic process around alternative development goals.
Advocacy and activism in the smart city is an important endeavour and comes at a critical time that sees smart city development outpace any deep awareness of their defining logic or process of implementation. It is therefore necessary that those who have access and proximity to the smart city landscape — researchers, policymakers, journalists, advocates — continue to attach a public awareness component to their broader work.
Our map attempts to expose some of the smart-city technologies that have been placed in cities and hopefully this work can be expanded upon in the future. There cannot be any meaningful public discussion or process of consent when smart city technologies are rolled out to a public that remains largely unaware of their existence.
Want to save millions of migratory birds? Turn off your outdoor lights in spring and fall
Billions of migratory birds pass through the night sky each spring and fall. Birds use stars to orient their journey between summer breeding grounds and winter feeding grounds. The artificial lights produced by humans disrupt the migration of birds, often with fatal consequences.
The dangerous impact of artificial lights from towers and skyscrapers have long been known to scientists. Birds are drawn to the artificial lights that occupy their airspace, and their navigational compasses are short-circuited by the unusual presence of light. A well-lit high-rise building can kill hundreds of migratory birds in a single night, and it’s common to find thousands of lifeless birds at the base of skyscrapers after a busy period of migration.
What about ground-level artificial lights that shine up from our backyards and buildings? Might these artificial lights also have negative consequences for passing migrants? And how could we benefit birds if we turned out the lights?
Tracking birds through sound
In my research laboratory at the University of Windsor, we study the ecology and conservation of birds using bioacoustic tools such as sound recording and sound playback. Birds produce an extraordinary diversity of sounds that allow us to locate them and study their behaviour. By eavesdropping on bird vocalizations, we can learn about bird movements and social activities, even under cover of darkness.
Many species of nocturnal migrants produce vocalizations when they are in active flight. These short and simple calls are known as flight calls, and they are thought to play a role in communication between birds within migratory flocks. Many flight calls are species-specific and therefore we can identify which type of birds are passing overhead at night. By recording these calls, we can measure the biodiversity of migrants simply by pointing microphones at the night sky. Examples of flight calls from six species of migratory birds. Dan Mennill, Author provided389 KB (download)
Recently, we used bioacoustic recordings of flight calls to study the effects of artificial light on migratory birds. We focused on ground-level artificial lights, the kind of lights that many of us use to illuminate our porches or driveways, or to provide landscape lighting in our backyards.
Lights change bird behaviour
During fall migration, my student Matt Watson and I collected recordings of the sky at 16 pairs of sites near Lake Erie. Each pair of sites included a dark location with no artificial lights and a nearby location with a back porch light or street lamp. We recorded from sunset to sunrise and then tallied all of the flight calls in every recording. We used these data to ask the question: Does the presence of ground-level lighting change the behaviour of birds moving overhead?
We detected far more flight calls from migratory birds above sites with artificial lights than nearby dark sites. On average there were three times as many calls recorded over sites with ground-level artificial lights. Therefore, artificial light increases the number of flight calls produced by birds migrating overhead.
Furthermore, we detected more species of birds calling above sites with artificial lights. We found that the acoustic biodiversity was almost 50 per cent higher above sites with ground-level artificial lights.
We are still exploring the mechanism behind these patterns. One possibility is that more birds pass over sites with artificial lights. A second possibility is that birds fly at lower altitudes over sites with artificial lights. A third possibility is that ground-level lights disorient passing birds, leading them to call more often.
Observations of birds at the 9-11 memorial in New York City, Tribute In Light, reveals that ground-level lights can distract migratory birds. Our recordings suggest that a similar phenomenon occurs even with backyard lights. Whatever the mechanism, our results are surprising and alarming, because they teach us that even low-powered outdoor lights change the behaviour of migratory birds overhead.
Lights and sounds create a deadly trap
A new study was recently published on the effects of ground-level artificial lights on nocturnal migrants. For 40 years, researchers at the Field Museum have collected dead birds from the base of well-lit buildings on Chicago’s waterfront. Over this time, they found more than 35,000 dead birds next to the windows of a single ground-level building.
Motivated in part by our bioacoustic studies of the effects of artificial light on migratory birds, the authors of the Chicago study asked an intriguing question: Are fatal window collisions related to the calling behaviour of birds?
The authors found a striking pattern. The bird species that were killed most often were the species well-known for their behaviour of producing calls during migration. The species that appeared rarely at the base of lit windows were species that are not known to produce flight calls.
For example, the most common birds collected after a fatal window collision were white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and song sparrows. All of these species produce flight calls. In contrast, warbling vireos, blue-grey gnatcatchers and eastern phoebes were rarely found dead next to lit windows, even though these animals are common nocturnal migrants in the Chicago area. None of these species produce flight calls.
This suggests that the propensity of bird species to produce flight calls is connected to the risk of birds making fatal collisions with artificially lit windows.
This new finding raises the possibility that some bird species are especially susceptible to these deadly traps. A passing migrant that is distracted by artificial light may produce a flight call. That flight call may attract other passing migrants, bringing them closer to danger. In this way, the negative impacts of ground-level lights appear to be especially severe for birds that routinely produce flight calls.
Turning out the lights
A clear and growing scientific consensus teaches us that artificial lights have a negative impact on migratory birds. Amid the many other threats facing birds during the current biodiversity crisis, the impact of artificial lights can be mitigated by an easy change to our own behaviour: the flip of a light switch.
In spring and fall we should turn off our outdoor lights at night. With the lights out, we can take the opportunity to stand outside and listen to the night sky. We’ll hear the sounds of a billion animals moving across the continent with less distraction from our light pollution.
Forget smart cities (for a minute), we need to talk about smart farms
There’s a lot of talk about digital technology and smart cities, but what about smart farms? Many of us still have a romantic view of farmers surveying rolling hills and farm kids cuddling calves, but our food in Canada increasingly comes from industrial-scale factory farms and vast glass and steel forests of greenhouses.
While the social and environmental consequences of agri-food industrialization are fairly well understood, issues around digital technology are now just emerging. Yet, technology is radically transforming farms and farming. And while different in scale and scope, technology is playing a growing role in small and organic farming systems as well.
The Canadian government is investing heavily in climate-smart and precision agricultural technologies (ag-tech). These combine digital tools such as GPS and sensors with automated machines like smart tractors, drones and robots in an attempt to increase farm profits while reducing pesticide and fertilizer use. GPS mapping of crop yields and soil characteristics help to cut costs and increase profits, so while seeds still grow in soil, satellites are increasingly part of the story. There’s no doubt that ag-tech may be promising for governments, investors and corporations, but the benefits are far less clear for farm owners and workers.
There is little research on the potential social impacts of ag-tech specifically, so a group of researchers at the University of Guelph conducted a study to figure out some of the likely impacts of the technological revolution in agriculture.
While changes in agriculture show promise for increasing productivity and profits and reducing pesticides and pollution, the future of farming is not all rosy.
Corporate control of many agricultural inputs — seeds, feed, fertilizers, machinery — is well documented. Agricultural land is also increasing in cost and farms are getting bigger and bigger. It is likely that digital agriculture will exacerbate these trends. We’re especially interested in what farm work will look like as the digital revolution unfolds.
Marginalized workers are set up to lose
While rising costs are always a concern for producers and consumers, we have two main concerns about how the digital revolution is changing farm work in particular.
First, who owns all of the data being produced in precision agriculture? Farm owners and workers produce data that has massive potential for commercial exploitation. However, just who gets to harvest the fruits of this digital data labour is unclear.
Should it flow to those who produce it? Should it be something that we own collectively? Unfortunately, if smart farms are anything like smart cities, then it looks like corporate control of data could tighten.
Second, it’s very likely that ag-tech will lead to an even more sharply divided labour force. So-called “high-skilled” managers trained in data management and analysis will oversee operations, while many ostensibly “lower-skilled” jobs are replaced. Remaining on-the-ground labourers will find themselves in working conditions that are increasingly automated, surveilled and constrained. For instance, in fruit and vegetable greenhouses inputs are increasingly being controlled remotely, but migrant workers still do much of the planting and harvesting by hand. And, they do so under conditions of severe physical and social immobility.
If we don’t direct it in a humane way, the digital revolution in agriculture is likely to heighten these vulnerabilities.
The agricultural system was built that way
Our food system is built on centuries of Indigenous land theft, dislocation and the suppression of Indigenous foodways while relying heavily on exploitable (Indigenous, migrant and racialized) labour. Across North America, farm workers have long been excluded from basic labour laws, legal status and the right to unionize.
And now, increased productivity often relies on increased exploitation – just ask anyone working in a FoxConn factory. As a result, our current food system is rife with exploitative practices, from production through to distribution, with racialized immigrants bearing the brunt.
Meanwhile, there is evidence that automation tends to negatively impact already marginalized workers.
The digital revolution in agriculture has a double edge. Smart farms bring promise, but automation in agricultural production and distribution will eliminate many jobs.
Our concern is that the suite of jobs that remain will only deepen economic inequities — with more privileged university graduates receiving the bulk of the well-paid work, while further stripping physical labourers of their power and dignity.
There is no magic pill, but our governments do have options. Policy and legislation can shift the path of ag-tech to better support vulnerable farm workers and populations. In doing so, the looming issue of land ownership and repatriation must be addressed in Canada, with Indigenous nations at the head of the table alongside marginalized workers and farmers. Supporting pathways to farming and permanent residency for migrant workers, as well as training for digital skill-building can help to close more immediate gaps.
We need to ready ourselves for how radical transformations in food production and distribution will impact land prices, property rights and working conditions. Our folksy view of farming is due for an update.
Scientists are beefing over which one of our senses is most important
HIf there is one thing Twitter has taught us, it’s that the world loves a question that sounds stupid, but actually has a profound and interesting answer. For instance, what would happen if the world suddenly turned into blueberries, as answered by physics recently. Or what colour is that dress?
In a similar way, perception scientists have recently been fighting it out on Twitter to answer the seemingly trivial question of: “which is the best sense, and why?”. The debate has opened up some surprisingly deep questions – like what actually makes a sense more or less valuable? And, are some senses fundamentally more important in making us human?
The question was also put to a poll. While most people would probably assume the obvious winner is vision, “somatosensation” – which we normally refer to as touch but technically incorporates all sensations from our body – took the day. But does this vote hold up when you take a closer look at the scientific evidence?
Losing your body
We need somatosensation to move successfully – seemingly more so than vision. While a big claim, it is arguably backed up by the rare handful of cases where this sense is lost. “Deafferented” patients are individuals who have lost most (or all) touch sensation, as well as the ability to sense the position (proprioception) and movement (kinesthesia) of their limbs. This may occur because the body attacks its own somatosensory nerves in post-infection autoimmune reaction, though in most cases the cause is unclear.
While there is no direct dysfunction in the patient’s motor systems, most sufferers cannot complete even the most basic of movements. That’s because the brain must feel the body’s starting position to create the right motor plan, and needs sensory feedback to know if the plan was executed successfully.
Despite these barriers, one patient, dubbed “IW”, shocked medical experts by regaining the ability to walk. He achieved this feat by meticulously planning what muscles to contract, in what order before moving – then staring at his limbs to track his success. This strategy is highly cognitively demanding, and not at all the norm, with most patients bound to wheelchairs.
Many foodies might think that taste gets their vote for top sense. However, those who have tried eating after dental anaesthetic can attest to the risks and difficulties of eating without somatosensation – a challenge described by the deafferented patient “GL” in the scientific literature.
Another subcomponent of somasensation is the vestibular system, which is critical in keeping us upright. If you have ever been motion sick, you have a tiny insight into what happens when this critical system goes awry. In short, your eyes tell the brain you are moving, but your vestibular system says you are still – causing a conflict that can lead to vertigo, nausea and loss of balance.
Pain and temperature perception also get lumped in with somatosensation, failing to fit into any other category. Being born without sensitivity to pain is rare (around 45 documented cases) and highly dangerous. Some experts speculate the incidence may actually be largely underestimated, as sufferers don’t survive long enough to be documented. This is because pain tells you something is directly impinging on your body in a bad way, and you better react fast. Patients must self-check multiple times daily, to prevent infection from cuts they haven’t noticed.
Touch forms a core part of our humanity. It is the first sense to develop in a fetus in utero, and some suggest the integration of sensations related to the body may form the basis of our fundamental self consciousness.
The touch of another can also reduce anxiety, influence our behaviour, shape brain development and reduce brain responses to pain in babies. We even have a dedicated set of nerves that preferentially process “social” and “emotional” touch.
Vision versus touch
On the other hand, looking from a neuroscience perspective, it is easy to see (no pun intended) why vision almost won the poll. The brain seems to have a vision focus. The primary brain area for processing visual stimuli, the visual cortex, takes up the largest area of any individual sense. Partly because of this vast processing resource, vision is the most acute sense we have for various kinds of discrimination.
The high reliability of vision means that if there is a conflict between what two senses say, vision will typically warp our final perception to be in line with the visual information. In the famous rubber hand illusion, stroking a realistic dummy hand in front of a person (and hiding their own hand) can make the person feel as if it is their own hand that is being stroked – with vision hijacking their sense of touch. Similar things happen when you conflict hearing with vision.
Vision also allows reading, writing and art. You can see the faces of your loved ones, or danger coming from far away. But maybe we only think vision is so crucial because it is at the very forefront of our daily experience. As Kevin Wright, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, who posted the best sense poll, states – people may simply perceive the loss of vision as being more life affecting because “we are more aware of our vision as opposed to our somatosensory function”.
And the rest…
So are the other senses really less important? Our sense of smell is incredibly ancient and complex. If order indicates anything, smell is a form of chemoreception which is thought to have been the first “sense” to evolve in our early multicellular ancestors. Smell is the only sense that bypasses our brain’s sensory relay system –- going straight to the cortex for processing.
Smell works together with taste to stop you eating spoiled or poisonous foods. Smell is also strongly linked to autobiographical memory, therefore forming a core part of the processes that maintain our identity. And hearing is better than both touch and vision for detecting danger coming up behind you. And it is certainly better than vision in the dark. And no hearing, no music. Enough said.
At the end of the day, somatosensation gets my vote because it keeps me upright, moving and alive – more so than the others. Looking to the future, however, I am excited to see how sensory substitution technology might upend our assessments of what sense is more or less important. As science reveals, for instance, that with the right device you can learn to see with touch or sound.
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