Sidewalk Labs proposes universal signs to make public aware of smart city systems

Signage would show when a smart system is monitoring a public area and why

The signs would be used in public spaces to show what types of system are monitoring, why, and wheteher they were recording data.
The signs would be used in public spaces to show what types of system are monitoring, why, and wheteher they were recording data.
A typical sign shows the type of monitoring in the top hex, a company logo and QR code in the second and third, and the final hex shows if the system is recording identifable data.
A typical sign shows the type of monitoring in the top hex, a company logo and QR code in the second and third, and the final hex shows if the system is recording identifable data.
The proposal includes a standard app that would give more data on all aspects of the recording when the QR code is accessed.
The proposal includes a standard app that would give more data on all aspects of the recording when the QR code is accessed.

Sidewalk Labs, Google’s urban ideas lab, has created a proposal for a set of universal signs that would show when smart city systems are observing people and why.

The new signage could be used in situations where systems such as CCTV, lane counters, occupancy sensors and more are monitoring people in public places.

The signs, which would look something like hazardous materials signs, would be used to convey to the public what sort of system was active, and whether or not it was recording identifiable data. The signage would also include the name of the company or entity responsible for the system, and a QR containing more information and linking to a feedback mechanism.

In a blog post, Sidewalk Labs Principal Designer Patrick Keenan and Legal Associate Chelsey Colbert, said that the signs would help make people aware of the systems around them , give them a way to find out more about the solution and to ask questions about it. It would also help to support principles of digital transparency and privacy.

The Sidewalk team noted that several cities have already begun posting notices when digital systems are deployed in the public realm, but that many such signs are hard to read and cannot adequately communicate the information in a succinct fashion.

“There’s little transparency about what data these technologies are collecting, by whom, and for what purposes,” the blog authors wrote. “Signage that does appear in the public realm often contains either small snippets, which give no indication of how to follow up or ask more questions, or multiple paragraphs of dense text.”

The new signs have been developed in participation with a number of cities. The proposed signage will be a universal set of icons, hexagonal in shape, that will use iconography to communicate specific concepts. One hexagon conveys the purpose of the technology; another, the logo of the entity responsible for the technology; and a third contains a QR code that takes the individual to a digital channel where they can learn more about the system.

A fourth hexagon, which will be colour-coded conveys privacy information, such as the type of sensing technology being used and whether it is recording identifiable data about the public or not.

“We strongly believe that people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding. For these reasons, we embarked on a collaborative project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could be like,” said Keenan and Colbert.

“Together with more than 100 participants from several cities, we sketched, debated, iterated, and prototyped a visual language that offers a quick way to understand the technology around us — and a means to easily learn more.”

The proposal also includes plans for a standardised digital channel, which would display in an app or online, which would spell out the purpose and ownership of the technology, in an easy-to-understand ‘chain’. The idea is that the user can open the chain from the QR code in the signage, and access additional data in the form of three categories of information: the hardware and purpose of the technology, the software and data it uses, and the means of storage. Each category is represented by a different shape.

The chain begins with icons conveying the responsible organisation, the purpose the technology serves, and the type of technology it is; this information is contained in hexagons (mirroring the signs observed in the physical world).

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