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Is Your Smart City Watching You? There's an Icon for That

As surveillance technologies have become increasingly common in public spaces, measures of consent and transparency have struggled to keep up. On any given day, urban citizens encounter more traffic and security cameras, bike lane counters, card readers, Wi-Fi signals or door sensors than they could possibly be aware of, and most people don’t read the fine print in user agreements when they sign up for digital services.

To get the ball rolling on addressing this problem, urban innovation startup Sidewalk Labs has developed a set of standardized icons to be placed on physical signs to tell people when they’re being recognized, when their data is being collected and by whom, where the information is going, and other things about their technological environment.

As detailed in a blog post today on, after a period of user research, Sidewalk Labs convened more than 100 participants from various cities over the past few months to sketch, debate, iterate and prototype a visual system of symbols, shapes and colors.

“We’re far from the days where signs needed to convey simple ideas like stop or go. Our public realm has become more complex and oversaturated with signs and informational cues,” said Spencer Cathcart, creative director at Puncture Design, in a statement included in Sidewalk Labs’ blog post. “New technology requires a richer visual language with roots in visual systems we already understand. It requires the knowledge and ideas of a wide range of experts, an iterative and collaborate process and an obsession with getting it right.”

The blog post said user research identified two primary categories of information people wanted to know about digital technology: its purpose, and the accountable entity. People also wanted an easy way to learn more, such as whether or not the technology could “see” or identify them.

Sidewalk Labs’ group chose four hexagonal icons to relay this information. One of these conveys the purpose of the technology being labeled, one contains the logo of the responsible entity, one has a scannable QR code that leads to more detailed information, and a colored hexagon combines an icon displaying the technology type (video, image, audio or other) with a color to mark how identifiable information is used — yellow for identifiable and blue for de-identified before first use, among others. This hexagon only appears when the technology can identify people.

For anyone who wants more detailed information, the QR code leads to a mobile site that displays a linear chain of icons, also including circles and squares. At the top of the chain are hexagons showing the organization, purpose and type of technology; followed by circular icons containing symbols to say whether the data collected is identifiable, how it gets processed and who can access it; followed by squares with symbols that convey where the data gets stored and who has access to it.

In its blog post, Sidewalk Labs said it made these concepts, workshop activities and materials available to the public in hopes that others might adopt or build upon them. The first draft of these design patterns is available in the "Digital Transparency in the Public Realm" repository on GitHub.

Sidewalk Labs said multiple cities have agreed to start testing this visual language on physical, hexagonal signs near sensor technologies, and the company is working on software to help managers of public spaces make their own signage with QR codes.

“We stand at a critical point in the development of our cities where technology is increasing all around us — yet most of us are oblivious to how this technology is being used and to what ends,” said Jeff Merritt, the World Economic Forum’s head of IoT, robotics and smart cities, in a statement. “This is a global challenge and we need global solutions.”