Thursday, 6 November 2014

The story of the "My Big Bro" experiment

What is MyBigBro?

MyBigBro is a system I have built that tracks a user on their journey through a city and captures and stores imagery of them that has been made available on the city’s CCTV traffic camera network, as they move through the field of vision of each subsequent CCTV traffic camera.

Why'd you do that?

There is a growing trend among Governments globally to make the data that they collect on their citizens as open and available as possible. The MyBigBro 'experiment' (I'll explain why I call it that later) explores this trend and leverages some of the data that is becoming accessible.

Some examples of open dataset repositories provided by Government are as follows:
One of the datasets that I find particularly interesting is CCTV traffic camera imagery. MyBigBro leverages that specifically.

How does the MyBigBro experiment work?

At the time that I originally wrote this document (which was originally a pitch for funding, and has now been hacked and re-purposed for this blog) MyBigBro was in deployed on the Android app store "Play" and in early alpha - not publicly available. There were (and still are!) a number of features yet to be developed before it was properly ready to introduce it for public use - it's now publicly available

It was working at a rudimentary level in early alpha though. Here is a screenshot from a journey that I made and tracked using it on January 4th 2014 (The look and feel of the system has changed significantly since this screenshot was taken):


[Images captured while travelling though Mangere Bridge, Auckland]


Architecture

The MyBigBro system architecture leverages a range technologies. Although the following diagram references AWS elements, currently MyBigBro sits mostly on the Azure cloud platform; the fundamental architecture has not changed significantly however since I drew the diagram in early 2014:


[The MyBigBro system architecture]

At the time I was using AWS and a local webhosting organisation (http://www.kiwihosting.net.nz/) for hosting purposes. The back-end services are now almost entirely running on Azure. No clients other than the Android one exist at this stage.

Development and potential; thoughts

Development on MyBigBro has been underway since mid-2013; my efforts ramped up in early 2014, following my completion of a two year part-time study programme last year. The idea first came to me sometime in 2012. I suppose I get between 1 and 10 hours per week to spend on this initiative, sometimes more, sometimes less.

Over the coming months and years I anticipate many city's CCTV traffic camera networks will become more advanced; the cameras will become higher resolution, the images will be refreshed at closer intervals and the camera networks will become more granular (we are already seeing this in
NZ). Currently images being captured from the NZ network are “hit and miss” as to whether the participant is captured, due to the CCTV image refresh intervals and the resolution of the cameras. As the camera networks develop though, users of MyBigBro will be able to capture images of themselves increasingly regularly.

At the time of writing (Nov 2014) MyBigBro is limited to New Zealand, Sydney, Hong Kong and London’s CCTV traffic camera networks. London is (currently - only just) of most interest, since the CCTV camera network there is vary granular and covers a rich range of urban settings.


[App screenshot showing a sample image picked up by a test user in London - https://mybigbro.blob.core.windows.net/images/55552a1b-9ffe-4336-a094-032f8b0d3650.jpg]

Further information relating to London’s CCTV traffic camera network is as follows:

Theme and market

The theme that I am developing could perhaps most accurately be described as “gamification” of issues that are of public interest, such as public sector CCTV infrastructure. The front-end (web and mobile app) is a novelty, which appeals to our general curiosity with regard to what data our Governments are collecting about us and making available to the general public. The product is mildly tantalising, but is not a tool or a necessity. I'm not certain what the market for MyBigBro is as a service, but can speculate...

Futures

The intention of the system at this stage is to capture imagery from cameras as users move through a network of CCTV cameras. The system could be adapted easily though to capture and store a series of images from a single camera indefinitely. This would be useful for example if a user wanted to keep an eye on their car overnight, which they had parked and left in the field of view of a camera.

MyBigBro is not really a business or a productivity tool – it is more like part of an experiment. However, given the current attention that issues relating to public sector data collection and distribution are receiving, MyBigBro does have the potential to become a point of interest in cities like London, where Government CCTV use is pervasive. Follow-on opportunities may arise as interest in the platform grows.

How can I get/use MyBigBro?

As mentioned above - the app's currently only any good to you if you use NZ's motorways, or Sydney, Hong Kong or London's streets. That being said, here's how you can get started:
  1. Get the app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.infostructure.mybigbro
  2. Visit and fnd your way around the web app: http://mybigbro.tv/
  3. Run the Android app (background is fine), traverse your city, look-and-see on the web app if any images are captured.
  4. Ask questions: https://twitter.com/mybigbrotv
Easy as 1, 2, 3...4!

Why "My Big Bro"?

So if you have not guessed; I call this experiment "My Big Bro" after the character "Big Brother" in George Orwell's book 1984. This is a loose reference to the way that the system sort of, claims back some of the data that is collected by a/the Government on it's users. Thus, MyBigBro is (part of?) a social experiment, or perhaps (more accurately?) an artwork.


[Banksy's "One Nation Under CCTV" - source: http://londonist.com/2008/10/council_to_remove_banksy_mural.php]

To clarify - I am not a conspiracy theorist and this is not a political manoeuvre. I do actually consider MyBigBro to be an experiment; a piece of art, like an installation artwork. I'm interested in the changing nature of our cities and the role that Government CCTV has to play in that. I'm also interested in image processing and computer vision. 

Mainly right now, I'm interested in people using MyBigBro and generating data - so if you know people in London in particular - tell them to install it and tell them to tell me if they reckon I've bollocksed something  up!