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Scene in Berlin

March 18, 2011

Like it or not, Berliners leave behind information about where they go, what they buy, what they eat, and who they're with. The data they unwittingly pass on is changing the city, says DW's Jonathan Gifford.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

It's a common feeling when emerging from the subway: disorientation after being whipped through a darkened underground passage and emerging on a busy street knowing only which way is up. These days, it's common to see people on the street navigating head down, finger poised, scrolling through a digital map on their smartphone.

Life in a big(ger) city is an increasingly wired experience and Berlin is no exception. The German capital is rapidly becoming a hub of activity for tech-based industries and online start-ups.

Being relatively affordable (read: cheap) is part of the attraction, local tech expert Igor Schwartzman told me. "Berlin isn't the city where you go to earn big money and because of that, start-ups can just go for it without the pressure they usually have in cities like London, New York or even the [San Francisco] Bay Area," he said.

Being "poor and sexy," as Berlin has famously been called, it's a city that attracts the young, educated and creative types needed to bring new ideas to fruition - like audio sharing start-up Soundcloud or online tour retailer Get Your Guide. Of course, these companies' online job ads never fail to mention the perks of onsite foosball and ping-pong tables - so it's clear what kind of digital hipsters these companies are looking for.

Subway sign in Berlin
Um, where am I?Image: picture-alliance/ ZB

Berlin culture email magazine Sugarhigh describes these workers as Digital Bohemians, or even twittus machines. Frequently spotted at various places throughout the city, Mac on lap, this "new species" is steering Berlin toward the future.

A city (in)formed by information

There's a side to all this that may really change Berlin. Each time we log on to get directions or search for the address of that cool, but hard-to-find bar, we leave behind information about where we are, what we're looking for and even who we're with.

This data says a lot about how we use our city, where we work and socialize, and what's important to us. It doesn't just come from smartphones alone; social media sites like Foursquare - a favorite of the Digital Bohemian - also help create a picture of where people are socializing.

Bike-share schemes, like Deutsche Bahn's Call a Bike, let authorities know how people are getting there. If Berlin's transport authorities (BVG) take the next step and start taking payment via electronic smartcards, like London's Oyster, a whole new body of sophisticated data will be generated.

Look behind you! Your digital data trail

This data can and does land in the hands of public and private bodies, government and transport officials, but also your mobile phone operator. And it's fair to ask: When there's money to be made with my data, do its keepers have my best interests in mind?

While digital Berliners like Schwartzman are excited by how this data will shape modern cities, others are more than a little freaked out about who is in the business of information-collecting. That's when my paranoia gland kicks in and I can't help thinking: What does my data reveal about me?

"It really depends on who is acquiring the data," explained London-based urban data researcher Anil Bawa Cavia when visiting Berlin, "I think governments and authorities understand the need for privacy, and they're making it very difficult to drill down to the individual level."

Unfortunately, where private companies are involved - think of your mobile phone provider - the data can be all about little old you.

Symbolic picture of a keyboard; a stick figure is drawn on one key and is being watched by cameras on neighboring keys
You're being watched - but how much does that matter?Image: kebox/Fotolia

Is your data protected?

Frankly, though, I have to say that I'm laissez-faire on this one. I appreciate that Berliners are keen to protect their privacy, but when it comes to my data, it's my utility that most interests me. Sure, this data may reveal things about me, but if my city runs more effectively, if services are provided where and when I need them, isn't that an appropriate payoff?

And I'm not alone: Berlin's tech community is also interested in getting the most out of the data that is being left behind. The excitement about how these vast tracks of data can shape cities of the future like Berlin is palpable. Suddenly there is hard data for what has up till now just been assumptions.

So while there is still some way to go for regulators, data collectors, researchers and citizens alike to truly make the most of this data and to protect it and us from its misuse, new ways of making sense of cities are rapidly emerging. Berlin may be far away from Silicon Valley, but still feels like it's at the forefront of the movement.

But before I think too much about it, I need to find out whether the tram is running tonight, so I can get home from the office.

Jonathon Gifford lives in Berlin and doesn't lose sleep over his data trail.

Editor: Kate Bowen