New Report on Sensor-Enabled Street Furniture Demystifies Public Life Data Collection

What makes a great public space great? Can we collect data in an equitable and transparent way that helps us answer this question?

Measuring the ways physical layout and design of a space impact how people interact and socialize has been a pursuit of urban designers for centuries. The measurement process is usually manual and labor intensive, yet this week, MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab releases its report that includes a toolkit for developing a "Do it Yourself" sensor bench that allows anyone to automate the process of measuring public space.

Inspired by the research of Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, the Civic Data Design Lab created the Benchmark project in collaboration with non-profit, Gehl Institute, to determine whether cutting-edge technology such as sensors (often referred to as the Internet of Things), and artificial intelligence could augment urban design research methodologies for measuring public life, and share that data widely. "Our research team sought to understand what spatial qualities promote active, social public spaces," asserted professor Sarah Williams, the director of the Civic Data Design Lab, whose work focuses on the intersection of data, policy, and the built environment. "We are using new technology to measure public space where researchers apply machine learning techniques to quantify urban design."

Underlying the experiment was a desire to provide an alternative to the current model of private-sector actors shaping the augmentation of urban space with “smart” technologies. Typically, these companies do not share their methods or data with the public. Benchmark provides an open source strategy through sharing data and methods for measuring public space which anyone can use.

“All too often, data collected from people in the public realm occurs without their knowledge,” attests Shin-pei Tsay, executive director of Gehl Institute. “That data is then often used for private gain, without open, public access. Our collaboration with Civic Data Design Lab let us explore how data of people in public space could be used to improve spaces for the public. We’re thrilled to be able to share the methods for how this was achieved.”

Developed over the course of ten months at MIT, the Benchmark system consists of mobile benches embedded with sensors. It collects data about where a given bench is located, how close it is to other Benchmark benches, whether people use it to sit or something else, how many people are in the public place at any given time, and environmental conditions such as light and noise.

The project seeks to empower civic decision makers with compelling qualitative and quantitative data that suggest how to craft better public spaces. The real-world tests in Cambridge, Boston, and Charlotte produced a series of valuable findings that are broadly applicable to cities around the world, including the fact that digital technologies such as sensors and neural networks can significantly aid planners in understanding the nature of interactions in public places. Colin Amos of Better Block Foundation, one of the organizers of the Charlotte, NC test reported that Benchmark played a key role in shaping the neighborhood's vision for a livelier public main street.

The final report on the Benchmark experiments contains detailed analysis of the development and testing of the system, as well as recommendations for civic leaders on how to improve public spaces based on the visualizations and statistics generated from Benchmark's outputs. The work would not have been possible without the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, whose goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which they believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

The full report and the toolkit to make your own bench can be downloaded at

Images Include

An initial setup of the Benchmark system before anyone rearranged any benches An initial setup of the Benchmark system before anyone rearranged any benches

Benchmark at Boston's HUBweek (October 2017) Benchmark at Boston's HUBweek (October 2017)

Benchmark at Better Block Belmont (September 2017) Benchmark at Better Block Belmont (September 2017)

Bench sensors ready for installation and deployment Bench sensors ready for installation and deployment

Benches awaiting their sensor boxesBenches awaiting their sensor boxes

Fully assembled and sensor-enabled bench
Fully assembled and sensor-enabled bench

Excerpt from the manual that allows anyone to re-create the project using the same methods.
Excerpt from the manual that allows anyone to re-create the project using the same methods.