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A Secret Urban Observatory Is Snapping 9,000 Images A Day Of New York City

Borrowing methods from astronomy, NYU researchers are hoping to learn more about the pulses of the city.

A Secret Urban Observatory Is Snapping 9,000 Images A Day Of New York City
[Top Photo: Björn Simon via Unsplash]

Astronomers have long built observatories to capture the night sky and beyond. Now researchers at NYU are borrowing astronomy’s methods and turning their cameras towards Manhattan’s famous skyline.

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NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress has been running what’s likely the world’s first “urban observatory” of its kind for about a year. From atop a tall building in downtown Brooklyn (NYU won’t say its address, due to security concerns), two cameras–one regular one and one that captures infrared wavelengths–take panoramic images of lower and midtown Manhattan. One photo is snapped every 10 seconds. That’s 8,640 images a day, or more than 3 million since the project began (or about 50 terabytes of data).


Taking photos of the skyline is nothing new; hordes of tourists do so everyday. And satellites and drones can already capture aerial vantage points. What’s unique about the observatory is the sheer, steady volume of imagery combined with an unchanging vista that offers a slice of the city, rather than only a bird’s-eye view.

“The real power of the urban observatory is that you have this synoptic imaging. By synoptic imaging, I mean these large swaths of the city,” says the project’s chief scientist Gregory Dobler, a former astrophysicist at Harvard University and the University of California, Santa Barbara who now heads the 15-person observatory team at NYU.

Dobler’s team is collaborating with New York City officials on the project, which is now expanding to set up stations that study other parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Its major goal is to discover information about the urban landscape that can’t be seen at other scales. Such data could lead to applications like tracking which buildings are leaking energy (with the infrared camera), or measuring occupancy patterns of buildings at night, or perhaps detecting releases of toxic chemicals in an emergency.

The video above is an example. The top panel cycles through a one-minute slice of observatory images. The bottom panel is an analysis of the same images in which everything that remains static in each image is removed, such as buildings, trees, and roads. What’s left is an imprint of everything in flux within the scene–the clouds, the cars on the FDR Drive, the boat moving down the East River, and, importantly, a plume of smoke that puffs out of a building.

“Periodically, a building will burp,” says Dobler. “It’s hard to see the puffs of smoke . . . but we can isolate that plume and essentially identify it.” (As Dobler has done by highlighting it in red in the top panel).

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To the natural privacy concerns about this kind of program, Dobler emphasizes that the pictures are only from an 8 megapixel camera (the same found in the iPhone 6) and aren’t clear enough to see inside a window or make out individuals. As a further privacy safeguard, the images are analyzed to only look at “aggregate” measures–such as the patterns of nighttime energy usage–rather than specific buildings. “We’re not really interested in looking at a given building, and saying, hey, these guys are particular offenders,” he says (He also says the team is not looking at uses for the data in security applications.) However, Dobler was not able to answer a question as to whether the project’s partners at city agencies are able to access data analysis for individual buildings.

If the New York demonstration project continues to be a success, the NYU team expects that similar observatories, which are relatively low-cost to run, could be set up in other cities all over the world–especially smaller cities that lack more comprehensive environmental monitoring equipment. Right now, the NYU scientists are now looking at seasonal and soon annual patterns in the data and hope to publish new discoveries about the way cities function.

“You can do this in a broad swath, taking a very wide view,” he says. “It’s going alive and going asleep and producing emissions. You can say, what is the pulse of the city?”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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