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Festival Could Blanket Downtown SF With Sensors

The Market Street Prototype Festival wants to track crowd movements with sensors.

Mary L/Shutterstock

Sensors are one of the next big things in tech, and an experiment across downtown San Francisco next year may take them to a level not yet seen. Also, there will be butterflies.

The Market Street Prototyping Festival, part of an ongoing effort to revitalize San Francisco’s beleaguered main thoroughfare, will blanket the city’s downtown with 50 community-oriented installations over three days next April. Each project’s success will be measured with sophisticated sensors that track how many participants come by and for how long. The concept is something the sensor designers, high-tech architecture firm MKThink, are already piloting around another city installation, the Whispering Dishes.

Artists met to brainstorm yesterday at Autodesk, one of the festival’s corporate sponsors.

Neil Hrushowy, a progressive urban designer for the city, kicked the meeting off with a nod to the entrepreneurs: “The government can’t solve 21st century problems by itself, and we should stop pretending it can,” he said. “It’s hard for government, which gains power by saying no [through] regulation, to step aside and say yes.”

“Yes” means letting entrepreneurs and artists take the reins.

Teams dispersed to tables split by region and garnished with whiteboards, sandwiches and coconut macaroons. I sat with the Financial District teams.

At the table: Allan Donnelly, a senior strategist at MKThink, and his colleague Willy Mann. The MKThink team’s plan is to put up sensors that track people through their electronics to measure their reaction to each installation. Across from them: A team of butterfly experts — Liam O’Brien and Amber Hasselbring. Their plan: To work with Nerds for Nature and the app iNaturalist to turn Market Street into a “riparian corridor” for moths and tiger butterflies.

“We’d love to run a moth light down here with some major lepidopterist,” O’Brien said, referring to a moth expert. “And have lounge chair installations so people can lean back during the day and realize how many [tiger butterflies] there are in the trees already.”

Mann suggested they ask Nerds for Nature to do a “bioblitz,” a sort of meetup where smartphone-toting urban explorers descend on a park and take pictures to document each species.

The sensor guys tried to stay quiet about their own project, except to ask the artists and the naturalists how they would like to measure the success of their installations.

Afterward I pulled Donnelly aside for a quick interview.

“We’re already doing a five-month pilot with the Whispering Dishes,” he said, referring to the enormous concrete art installations downtown near Yerba Buena Park off Mission Street.

MKThink installed an array of small (six-inch by four-inch by two-inch) sensors attached around the Whispering Dishes and at nearby coffee shops. The tech behind the project is pretty simple: Every connected electronic device (such as a cellphone) has a unique identifier called a media access control address that can be picked up by other devices. MKThink’s sensors use those addresses to monitor the movements of the devices around them — how long they linger, how often they return.

Given how we cling to them, cellphone behavior seems a pretty good proxy for human behavior.

MKThink’s upcoming sensor array at the Prototyping Festival will be even more ambitious. The company says it’s the first and largest of its kind ever in San Francisco. And it will measure the effect of temperature, humidity and wind on crowd behavior.

The political implications of the project are interesting, of course. I couldn’t find much written about MKThink’s Whispering Dishes sensors — probably because sensors are a touchy topic. Certainly, it’s not difficult to imagine the sort of information they collect being misused.

But MKThink is set on casting a kinder light on ambient sensors. The company’s other pilot project right now is measuring how small room temperature variations effect children’s behavior in the classroom.

“Here, sensors are part of a larger purpose to understand how successful our public spaces are,” Donnelly said.

So you’ll be able to track the audience?

“We actually don’t like to use the word ‘track,'” he said, cautiously.

At the table, when Donnelly asked the butterfly specialists how they’d measure success, O’Brien said he just wanted more people to see the butterflies.

“People need to look up and notice what’s around them,” he said.

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