For the past two months, 24 hours a day, MIT researchers have been collecting the electronic communications of millions of New Yorkers — but not for salacious gossip or to protect national security.
They've been building a census that shows, neighborhood by neighborhood, New York's telephone and Internet links to other cities across the planet and how those connections change over time.
"Our cities and the globe are blanketed with flowing bits of digital data, and looking at this data, we're able to better understand the physical world," said Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Visualizations from the New York Talk Exchange (NYTE) project are part of a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called "Design and the Elastic Mind." Open through May, the exhibition examines how designers use technology in ways that change lives.
Researchers stress that no information about individuals or actual conversations and messages are being collected. AT&T is giving MIT only aggregate data from its switches in the city.
The information reveals a trove of interesting population patterns. By looking at the neighborhoods where the data came from, researchers determined that New Yorkers who engage in global gab tend to be on the high end of the socio-economic scale or struggling to make ends meet. Translation: international business and professional people or poor immigrants.
"The striking piece of evidence coming out of this project is that global talk happens both at the top of the economy and at its lower end," Saskia Sassen, a Columbia University professor and globalization expert, wrote for the project catalog. "The vast middle layers of our society are far less global. The middle talks mostly nationally and locally."
The MIT team started monitoring billions of electronic streams flowing to and from New York about two months ago, relying on information provided by AT&T, one of the world's largest providers of communications services.
AT&T Labs, based in Murray Hill, N.J., collects the data on phone calls, e-mail messages, cyber-phone connections and Web browsing, then transfers only that information — which has no personal, identifying details — to MIT in Cambridge, Mass., for processing and analysis.
As the data accumulate over the next few months, the team hopes to see a reflection of human migration — essentially, a snapshot of globalization.
Already, graphs on display at MoMA — and on the Web — show clusters of intense activity from New York to South America, the Caribbean, Canada, and parts of Europe and Africa, matching neighborhoods across the city with more than 170 ethnic groups.
Nayan Chanda, an expert on globalization, said such research "is absolutely worthwhile."
"This fast communication that links the world has made globalization much more intense and much more visible. It gives you a very valuable footprint of the extent to which a country is involved in global communications. It's interesting for demographers, for people studying economics, telecommunications and business," said Chanda, director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.