At one end of San Francisco Bay lies Silicon Valley, birthplace and home of Big Data technology, from Apple to Google. At the other lies the vibrant and prosperous city of San Francisco. And across the water from San Francisco – 15 minutes away by underground BART train – is the city and port of Oakland.
Oakland has a sleepy city centre, hipster bars and an alternative bookshop. It is also regularly listed as one of the three most violent cities in the US. Along with the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s also subject to frequent earthquakes, and its port, where two-million shipping containers enter or leave the US every year, is at the mercy of potential tsunamis.
When, in 2013, Oakland was offered federal money to install an extensive early warning system that would cover both crime and natural disasters, the authorities found it easy to say yes. Oakland would have a Domain Awareness Center (DAC), bringing together vessel tracking; tsunami and earthquake warning systems; 700 surveillance cameras; automatic licence-plate readers; facial-recognition software; and a technology called ShotSpotter that uses microphones to listen for gunshots. And Oakland would have all this without spending a cent of local taxpayers’ money.
In 2015, I went to Oakland to hear the whole story from one of Oakland Privacy’s key players, Brian Hofer, an attorney who first read about the DAC in the local newspaper, the East Bay Express. ‘I had no idea it was happening’, he told me, as we walked across the peaceful lawn of Frank Ogawa Grand Plaza, in front of the city hall:
‘I pay attention to politics – I read the newspaper. But I didn’t know this was happening until I read a December 2013 article in the East Bay Express, which analysed a lot of the public-record documents that Oakland Privacy had received. By that point the project was already six months old. It just randomly happened that the very next day was an Oakland Privacy meeting so I showed up and said “How can I help?”.’
Why were Oakland residents so concerned? Local context is key here. Relations between the city authorities and police and the local population were already strained. On New Year’s Day 2009, a 22-year-old called Oscar Grant was pulled off the train he was travelling on at Fruitvale Station by a BART police officer, and shot dead while handcuffed, face down on the platform. Grant was African-American. His killer, who claimed the shooting was an accident, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The proposed DAC was never going to be taken at face value; rather it was seen as part of the authorities’ attempts to control citizens
In October 2011, a group of protesters set up an encampment in Frank Ogawa Plaza, renaming it Oscar Grant Plaza. Calling themselves Occupy Oakland, they aligned themselves with other Occupy protests across the US and beyond. City and police efforts to remove the encampment escalated into violence and exacerbated tensions between authorities and the local community. So the proposed DAC was never going to be taken at face value; rather it was seen as part of the authorities’ attempts to control citizens. As Hofer explains:
’[The DAC] had originally been sold as a port-infrastructure project. Then it was sold to us as this thing for first responders to help with efficiency. The problem being, the only time our previous version of [the DAC] had been activated was in response to protests. So we had some suspicions when this showed up on the city-council agenda.’
Add to this the impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations about just how much data national authorities were collecting on their own populations, and Oakland’s citizens felt they had cause to worry.
Ironically, the very lack of trust between the people and the authorities was one reason the latter wanted the DAC, says Hofer:
‘Because there’s distrust among a lot of the citizens with reporting crimes or being witnesses, Oakland has made this decision that they’re going to use technology to solve their problems. It’s shiny-gadget syndrome. We’re up the road from Silicon Valley, and everybody’s promising us all these wonderful things, selling it as this Big Data-driven solution that is going to solve all our society’s problems, and it’s just not playing out that way.’
Big Data technology does make it very easy to collect information automatically about all sorts of aspects of city life. Those diverse datasets can then be aggregated to build a multidimensional picture of all aspects of life evolving in real time. It can track wind patterns, for example, so a chemical fire at the docks might be controlled more easily, or schools and houses downwind from the fire can be evacuated. ‘That’s wonderful, that’s great’, says Hofer. ‘We have no problem with that. No one has ever made an argument before the city council against those types of warning systems.’