by Thomas Wailgum

Mapping New York City’s Telecommunications Traffic

Feb 22, 20084 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsNetworking

A new map exhibit by an MIT team visualizes the volume of NYC's IP and voice traffic and charts the global rhythm of communications.

New York City is known as both the epicenter of global business and the city that never sleeps. And, thanks to a new research project led by MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory, anyone can see visual representations of why those reputations are so true.


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The project is called New York Talk Exchange (NYTE), and it shows the telecommunications traffic coming into and leaving New York City at any point during the day. That traffic data, which is a combination of Internet protocol (IP) and voice communications, is represented on three large visualizations that hang in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition, “Design and the Elastic Mind,” and can also be seen on the Senseable website.

At its core, the project “reveals how New York connects with the network of global cities,” says Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City laboratory and associate professor of urban technologies at MIT. (Ratti is also responsible for the Real-Time Rome exhibition, which was able to “paint” a digital picture of Rome traffic on glass screens using traffic congestion, the routes of the city’s taxis and buses, and where city dwellers congregate and move—all with real-time wireless data.)

But in looking closer at New York City’s data flows, which come from AT&T’s networks, Ratti and his team discovered the complex and varied connections people in New York make with the rest of the world as well as the “global rhythm of communications.”

IMG Image Alt Description
An image representing the volume of Internet data flowing between New York City and the world. From MIT senseable city lab .

“The pulse of the planet, with its different time zones,” he says, “is also the pulse of New York.”

The first visualization is called Globe Encounters, and it uses 3-D real-time animations and glowing virtual lines to illustrate New York City’s connections to other cities—a sort of “globalization in real time,” according to the team. The greater the glow, the greater the amount of IP traffic.

The second, called Pulse of the Planet, shows how those connections change over the course of the day as “time zones sweep across the planet,” according to the project overview. “It also shows how New York follows a 24-hour schedule, as if it were always awake to connect to the rest of the globe.”

The last visualization (The World Inside New York) examines the city’s five boroughs, demonstrating how global connections can vary by neighborhood. The team refers to this as “globalization from the bottom.” For example, Mumbai, India, ranks 24th as the origin of calls into Manhattan, and 11th in calls into Queens, according to the MIT team. Toronto, Canada, is one of the main destinations for calls out of Manhattan, but accounts for just 1 percent of calls from the Bronx.

Columbia University professor Saskia Sassen notes in the NYTE project catalog that “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. The vast middle layers of our society are far less global; the middle talks mostly nationally and locally.”

In addition, with the help of British Telecom data, the team was able to compare the relative connectedness of business rivals London and New York City. So far, the data has shown that New York has more global reach into Asian and South American business hubs, such as Beijing, China; Bogota, Colombia; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. London, conversely, has more reach into Europe and the United States. The data surprised Ratti, he says.

“The AT&T and BT data comparison hints at an interesting parallel: In an age of globalization, perhaps London’s relationship to Europe is analogous to what is conventionally believed to be New York’s relationship to the whole of the United States,” Ratti notes in the project’s overview. “The ‘continent’ may be closer to London than the British believe.”

During the coming months (the MoMA exhibit runs until May 12, 2008) the team will, using the telecommunications data, explore how the structures of global cities are evolving, the dynamics of globalization, and whether more data transfers across the globe have any effect on the need for travel.

“In the end,” Ratti notes in the overview, “the NYTE project reveals as much about the city of New York as it does about its worldwide counterparts, in areas such as business, culture and immigration. In other words, our visualizations demonstrate that in the information age, urban life is as global as it is local.”