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CityScan: the dystopian technology that could make breaking the law impossible

CityScan: the dystopian technology that could make breaking the law impossible


High-tech, fully-automated code enforcement could be a boon for city coffers

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There's a scene in Demolition Man — the goofball 1993 action film starring Sylvester Stalone as a violent police officer and Taco Bell as the only restaurant in America — in which a machine emerges from a grass-covered lawn in front of a Los Angeles government building. The machine sprays "LIFE IS HELL" in colorfully exaggerated graffiti text on a sterile-looking concrete sign labeled "Ethical Plaza." Whatever might the city do to scrub this defacement from its facade?

Well, this is the future, remember — Demolition Man takes place in 2032 — and graffiti is apparently no longer a big deal. The sterile-looking concrete sign knows it's been defaced, somehow, and wipes itself clean — a sort of automated building code enforcer.

Today, we're still a ways off from discovering how accurate Demolition Man’s predictions will ultimately be. But we’re closer to automatic law enforcement than you might think.

On the top floor of the immense Merchandise Mart in Chicago, a company called CityScan operates with the goal of helping cities enforce some of perhaps their arguably least enforceable laws.

Up to 30 percent of Chicago's billboards are illegal, CityScan says

Orlando Saez, a serial entrepreneur and the company’s COO, explains CityScan’s genesis this way: a real estate developer (who Saez would not name) was contacted by a billboard company that wanted to plant a sign on his property in Chicago. The developer attempted to go through the Byzantine process of getting permission to do so through the city’s proper channels. But he ran into problems; he couldn’t get callbacks, couldn’t find out who was in charge of the permitting, and generally encountered a predictable haze of municipal bureaucracy.

Though Saez says the developer eventually got his permit, he talked with others who claimed "it was better to ask for forgiveness later than permission now" when it came to putting up billboards. Though tracking data for this kind of thing is dubious, Saez claims that this bureaucratic permitting haze leads to a large number of illegal signs —between 25 and 30 percent of all billboards in the city, he says.

But what if the city could work toward automating this permitting process? What if the city could use mapping technology to figure out where unpermitted billboards and other code violations were cropping up? It wouldn’t solve problems related to bureaucratic sluggishness, but it would at least allow the city to enforce code violations without having to regularly send city employees out to inspect its 4,300 miles of roadways.

Why would the developer want to pay for billboard permits when he doesn’t need to? Saez says it’s a matter of supply and demand: if the city can eliminate 25 to 30 percent of all billboards, the remaining legal billboards — those owned mostly by major companies who can easily afford the permit fees — will see the value of their signage increase.

The developer pitched his idea to entrepreneurs associated with 1871, a co-working center for digital startups in Chicago. More than a year later, the result is CityScan. The company has a "strategic partnership" with Nokia, whose mapping division has offices in Boeing's headquarters just across the river. CityScan takes that mapping information and, with the help of the Joliet, Ill.-based engineering surveying firm Ruettiger, Tonelli & Associates, identifies the location — "to within two centimeters accuracy," Saez says — of awnings, road signs, and anything else a city might want to keep track of.

"Working with government is not easy."

In Chicago, that may be billboards (Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed illegal billboard enforcement could bring the city an extra $2.5 million in tax revenue in 2011). In other cities, the technology might be used for other things. New York, for example, is in talks with CityScan about construction site permits, Saez says. And if Los Angeles (d)evolves into a Demolition Man-like future, CityScan might be able to provide information about when subterranean graffiti pranksters emerge into the apparently hellish Southern California daylight.

There’s potential for skepticism here; CityScan might sound like an invitation for privacy infringement. And the company's employees are more than aware: when I spoke with CityScan’s social media manager, Matthew Zwiebel, the mere insinuation that the company’s technology might inspire privacy concerns prompted him to say, "Do you want to bring up Big Brother, or should I?" But in reality, there are still too many unanswered questions to begin diving headlong into concerns about which civil rights might be violated by a company that does nothing but gather data about street-level activity.

And without a contract, CityScan is, at this point, still just an idea.

"Do you want to bring up Big Brother, or should I?"

Though Saez is confident CityScan will strike a deal with New York City in the next 90 days or so, nothing’s been signed yet. And Saez is more than open about his concerns regarding a municipal partnership. "Working with government is not easy," he says. He should know: after a series of very successful and not so successful entrepreneurial adventures, he worked for nearly two years as the Deputy Director of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology for the State of Illinois. This put him face to face with governance, and showed him that even the best ideas can face serious pushback. But he’s confident CityScan will catch on — and the company’s attracted $1.5 million from venture capitalists who agree with him.

"There is actually information about the outdoors that can be collected at a granular detail that was never possible before," Saez says.

Zwiebel expanded on that thought. "Having an understanding of the outdoors and structures and putting them into an inventory is already something cities are doing," he says. "We’re just making that really, really easy to do."