When in Rome, you might be tracked

Telecom Italia-backed MIT mapping project, featured at the Venice Biennale, tracks people in Rome by cell phone. Images: Tracking those roaming around Rome

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
2 min read
Rome might not have been built in a day, but it was mapped in three dimensions.

That is, when Romans had their cell phones turned on. Telecom Italia, Italy's main telephone operator, has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a real-time mapping system that tracks how people move in urban spaces.

Real Time Rome debuted on Friday at the Venice Biennale, the canal-laden city's biennial exhibition of fine arts and, in recent years, technology projects related to urban studies.

Explorers of the Real Time Rome exhibit will encounter large, colorful wall projections that, at first glance, might look more like stills of a funky computer screensaver than a map. When they look closer, they'll find that lines and spots of bright color represent heavily trafficked routes and popular neighborhoods throughout the city.

Real-time mapping in Rome

The MIT technology, based in part on the Geographic Information System, maps real-time data gathered from mobile operators and transportation authorities to create a bigger, location- and population-based picture.

Carlo Ratti, the director of MIT's newly formed Senseable City Laboratory, which is running Real Time Rome and a similar Wi-Fi-based project on MIT's campus, says the maps give insight into a city's popular hangouts and traffic flows--data that architects and city planners crave.

Real Time Rome is also being used to figure out how tourists in Rome move throughout the city and can show where spikes in the volume of calls happen. One sample image from the project, for example, shows spiked cell phone usage around Olympic Stadium in Rome and the Vatican during Madonna's infamous on-the-cross appearance last month. Another shows Rome's population movement around the time of Italy's World Cup win.

"You can see where people are, where you can go and get a drink," Ratti said in an interview with MIT's Technology Review magazine in May. "Maybe you can also see tourists and the concentration of different nationalities in the city."

But equipped with this technology, could your ex be able to track you down on your next date?

According to a statement from the Senseable City Lab, information on individual cell phone users' locations are kept anonymous.

Ratti says the monitoring technology presents a "dream scenario" for urban developers and emergency relief agencies alike. "Something like Katrina would never have happened if you had such a system...You could identify where people were after a disaster (if their cell phones were working) and actually go and help them," he told the Technology Review.

"We already have many cities onboard, including Florence and Rome in Italy, and Zaragoza in Spain," he said in a Thursday interview with CNET News.com. "Negotiations are under way with several others."

MIT researchers last year worked on a similar cell phone-based mapping project in Graz, Austria.

Real Time Rome is featured in the 10th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale through Nov. 19.