Statistical persons

I’m currently reading ‘SENTIENT CITIES Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space’ in preparation for my assignment. It’s a rather fascinating discussion of embedded information and processing within the cityscape, where buildings think about us; where some people are tracked and judged via data, while others are invisible and mute; and where the city becomes a big hiding place that conversely is utterly transparent.

Great stuff, if a little disconcerting at times, so please allow me a short dystopian moment. Amongst the more *eye-opening* elements, Crang and Graham write about how the US DSB (Defense Science Board) called in 2004 for an ambient intelligence tracking programme in the quest for security within cities. The proposed scheme was to be focussed on finding nefarious targets by using very localised and continual data analysis. In other words, the vision was that potential terrorists would be tracked minute by minute via various identification methods. This data would be fed into databases and analysed against trends and norms – the ‘memories’ of people, places, interactions and happenings. Eventually, via a series of calculations this surveillance would produce intelligence on those who were anticipated terrorists or ‘statistical persons’ according to Mark Seltzer and quoted by Crang and Graham (p.799-804). Fortunately, according to Buscher et al. ‘To our knowledge the DSB’s suggestions have not been implemented’ (2013 p.2). Which is good because presumably to be able to create a norm from which to deviate there’d have to be a lot of data in the databases from non-nefarious targets – so we’d all be in there. And we’d have to hope the maths were good!

In all, this reading has sparked off some serious thoughts about my assignment. I’m very interested in the metaphorical and literal ‘hiding’ places within the cities, and how/if they expand through the suburbs and into the countryside. I think that this will be tied up with sociomateriality to some degree, because I think it will be about choice and agency and blending and in-between spaces. But still a lot of reading to do before I can pin the assignment down precisely.


Buscher, M., Sanches, P., Bylund, M., Wood, L., Ramirez, L., & Augustin, S. (2013). A New Manhattan Project ? Interoperability and Ethics in Emergency Response Systems of Systems. Proceedings of the 10th International ISCRAM Conference – Baden-Baden, Germany.

Crang, M., & Graham, S. (2007). SENTIENT CITIES Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space. Information, Communication & Society, 10(6), 789–817. doi:


According to our data found at

Digital persons found at


2 Responses to “Statistical persons”

  1. cmeckenstock April 6, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    Nice piece of research there, Steph. I have not heard of the term ambient intelligence but it certainly is disconcerting. Huge work need to be done on ethics of such technology and the idea of data protection and privacy versus assumed security, including the idea of how data is captured and by whom etc… I was intrigued for example how fraud teams in banks are able to detect fraudalent uses of our debit cards. On the one hand, I feel safe, on the other, I am troubled by the mechanism of this process and how connected our data is to some form of surveillance…

  2. Steph Carr April 6, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Thanks Chantelle. Ambient intelligence is really interesting stuff, and I suspect is massively developed since the authors wrote their piece in 2007. I wander round London using my phone as a map, my Oyster card to get on and off buses and tubes, and my bank card to pay for things. I reckon that must paint a pretty detailed picture of my life. I suppose it’s a question of what you gain in return, as you mention.

    I also think that because data collection and processing is so embedded in everyday life, people don’t know how much is being collected, how, and for what purpose; and this leaves a vacuum for concerns to develop about the erosion of privacy which might well be out of proportion. Or might not be, who knows!!

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