You may have heard about the work that Portland Metro has been doing with Replica, a spin off of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, designed to empower local governments with better data for making decisions for their constituents. Especially for things like smart city planning and the like.
Replica’s model utilizes “synthetic data” — or to be more plain, fake data — to model the movement of citizens throughout a metropolitan area. Or to put it another way, you more than likely currently have a “digital clone” wandering around Portland.
Technically, it’s not you. It’s just a clone that does stuff the way you do.
But there’s a pretty concerning issue with that. The fake data has to be modeled off of real data to be effective and applicable. But it’s not exactly clear what data is being used to inform your clone. And the obfuscation of where that real data is coming from is starting to raise more than a few eyebrows.
Local governments’ struggle to understand what’s under the hood of algorithmic technology mirrors the experiences of everyday consumers who have little insight into how social media platforms, mobile devices, and smart home products gather, share, and sell data. When it comes to designing more efficient, equitable cities, synthetic data holds great promise—but understanding its provenance has become the next frontier in the urban privacy debate.
Fast Company takes a deep dive into what’s happening — and what’s not happening — in Portland. And it’s well worth the read.