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Mediated Cityscapes 01: Four Statements About Urban Computing

[screen captures from IBM's "Planning for Smarter Cities" commercial / 2010]

Conversations about ubiquitous computing and the city often get anchored to specific paradigms: urban informatics, discussions of ‘smartphone urbanism’, open data drumbeating and any number of other stock frames of reference are usually engaged before more primary topics like civic engagement, class and our moment-to-moment experience of the city are broached. This is not entirely surprising as cities are monstrously complex assemblages – it is difficult to wrap our heads around the scale of the infrastructures, ideological forces and the flows of capital that shape the urban realm. If one were to unflinchingly subscribe to the claims made by advertisements like that pictured above, they’d be inclined to believe that we are on the threshold of a fundamental shift in the way we represent and ‘operate’ our cities. However, on closer consideration it is clear that we are merely at the end of a very long arc of developments that has seen the increasing deployment of scientific management principles and information technology directly into the urban fabric. What we’re really experiencing right now is an exponentially greater data yield from and increasing interoperability between systems that we previously considered insular. While the density of sensors and access to civic data may be increasing, this rationalization of the landscape has been underway since at least the early nineteenth century – Molly Wright Steenson has astutely identified the origin of these phenomena as the intercity railroad and electrical telegraph, technologies that “annihilated both space and time” and “transmitted intelligence”.(1)

This text is the first of a series entitled Mediated Cityscapes, which will provide a cursory introduction to how emerging technologies interface with the city. The goal of this endeavour is to deliver an overview of current thought in this field, a selection of related case studies and to identify and consider several key historical precedents. There is a breadth of opinion and a lot of moving parts within this discourse, so rather than produce catch-all manifestos this series will be delivered as speculative, topical vignettes. This first post provides four general statements regarding urban computing and information culture more broadly.

[Berlin Wall 3D screencaptures / images: layar]

Statement one: smartphones are only a means to an end

Some of the wildest writing on ‘smartphone urbanism’ can be found in Benjamin Bratton’s 2008 essay “iPhone City”, which offers a thorough and mildly psychotropic consideration of the seemingly boundless domain of iDevices. Bratton reads the sensor-laden handsets as altering the use of space so that it is “less about geography and more about opportunity” and acknowledges the pervasive ‘appification’ of various urban functions:

“Phone+city is a composite read-write medium, allowing for realtime communication through multiple modes, now and in situ, and represents, in combination, an important infrastructure of any emergent global democratic society. It can do this not only because it enables physical, communicative and thereby social mobility, but because it dramatically reinserts specific location into digital space and does so by making location gestural.”

This dramatic reading of the remediated city speaks to a seamless intersection of representational and lived space. While alluring at a conceptual level, we’ve seen little evidence of a mobile interface or platform that perfectly dovetails with ‘waking life’ – a case study in the limitations of an existing augmented reality (AR) application will drive this point home.

The above screen captures are of Berlin Wall 3D, an AR application released last year by two German developers (Hoppala and Superimpose) for the AR platform Layar. Like other AR apps, the software capitalizes on the built-in camera, accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope sensors of contemporary smartphones to provide real time information overlays to allow a mobile handset to function as an ‘urban viewfinder’. Launching Berlin Wall 3D in Berlin allows users access to an overlay of a 3D model of the infamous concrete barrier that divided the city—and two worldviews—between 1961 and 1989. Users of the app become atemporal tourists that are granted an inkling of the scale and quality of this massive social partition and can freely move about the present-day city with their attention firmly anchored in the past. The project reveals both the possibilities and limitations of AR served through handheld devices. While these representations are convincing, they are also experienced alone and a user must at least partially withdraw into a state of ‘eyes glued to the screen’ introversion to access the digital shadow of this ominous historical landmark. Current high-end handsets are clumsy, over-branded accessories that we bring into our lives long enough to tether ourselves to exorbitant data plans before shipping them to the landfill. Perhaps the necessary counterpoint to Bratton’s enthusiasm regarding “gestural location” can be found in the hunched, incandescent figures that populate Chris Ware’s 2009 New Yorker cover – a scene where fantasy is inseparable from isolation. To look wildly towards the future: note the protagonists in Keiichi Matsuda’s Augmented City 3D, where ‘interfacing’ is unconstrained by gadgetry. When can we skip forward to this kind of effortless computing? My advice is to keep tabs on DIY gestural interfaces, smart surfaces and the wearable technology scene for cues as to how we’ll unlock ourselves from our present reliance on mass-market vanity electronics. Be sceptical of anyone who tells you the smartphone is an ‘elegant urban interface’—they have either never read Calvino or are in location-based marketing—the devices are merely placeholders for cheaper technologies that will more gracefully engage the body.

[Data Collection - ID #01 / 2009]

Statement two: the quantified self demands due diligence

In her brilliant 2004 essay “Intimations of Everyday Life: Ubiquitous Computing and the city” [PDF], Anne Galloway considers a nuanced vocabulary for thinking about emerging technology and the modern metropolis. Galloway argues that ‘the everyday’ revolves around “spatialization, temporalization, embodiment and performativity” and that these are the frames of reference through which we should scrutinize ubiquitous computing. Identifying and tracking events across time and space, the graceful execution of computation ‘in the world’ and engendering action – if our tools can facilitate these goals we’ll surely be better off for it, right? Well, while essentially correct this thesis wavers somewhat when you start to consider some of the implications of our increasingly networked identities.

The above image is from the Canadian artist Dave Kemp’s Data Collection, a photography project that created identification card ‘portraits’ of approximately one hundred subjects. Each participant had the final say as to which cards were included in their photograph so—as evidenced by the example above—perhaps student and membership cards were suitable exhibit fodder while bank, credit cards and social insurance information remained concealed. The point of this endeavour was to force individuals to make conscious decisions about what information they share and what remains concealed – generally speaking, this mindfulness associated with this exercise is largely lacking on the social web. If Facebook is representative of the digital commons that the masses want (and perhaps deserve) it is very likely that we will see the same kind of market-driven dataveillance associated with this 600 million-strong social network play out in the networked city. In order to meaningfully translate the minutiae of city life—let alone civic engagement—into machine-readable data, we have to be able to critically engage the significance of sharing personal information. As below, so above: if we cannot develop agency in defining our personal transparency, can we meaningfully develop open governance and institutions? Although describing the fragile post-Wikileaks state of global superpowers, comments made by activist Rop Gonggrijp in his keynote speech at the 27th Chaos Computer Club Congress this past December are quite relevant a the municipal level:

“As we enter uncharted terrain, we are the first generation in a long time to see our leaders in a state of more or less complete helplessness. Most of today’s politicians realize that nobody in their ministry or any of their expensive consultants can tell them what is going on anymore. They have a steering wheel in their hands without a clue what—if anything—it is connected to.”

This is the ground-zero moment for DIY citizenship and there is definitely a wealth of opportunity available for individuals that are able to capitalize on this leadership vacuum. The tech-savvy and fiercely imaginative are charged with making sense of big (civic) data, assessing and reimagining crumbling infrastructure, building prototypes, finding business models and inviting themselves into the free-for-all of policy-making. To quote Adam Greenfield’s “Elements of Networked Urbanism”, we need to shift from being “consumers to constituents” – who would have thought an ethics of interaction design could be the rallying cry for a generation?

[Trash Track electronics and diagram / photo: SENSEable City Laboratory]

Statement three: there is no truth but in things

The SENSEable City Lab’s Trash Track is an inspiring example of how ‘everyday’ computing can cultivate our understanding of fundamental urban processes. Prompted by the simple question “why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?”, the project employs electronics-laden refuse to gain insight into waste management. Produced for the 2009 exhibit Toward the Sentient City(2), the project visualizes the path of waste by by attaching custom designed radio transmitting tags to discarded objects and then tracks their journey to various storage and processing facilities while en route to the landfill or recycling depot. Decrepit consumer electronics, bagged garbage and disposable coffee cups are transformed into geolocated nodes that generate analytics to assess these previously opaque ‘migrations’ within the life cycle of waste. This data provides a ‘bottom up’ reading of these processes and could reveal inefficiencies and redundancies in the management of garbage. As a proof of concept prototype, the undertaking is also extremely valuable in generating a more nuanced awareness of our waste footprint and allowing us to trace the journey of an object that we handled or had a personal connection with. Aside from prompting dialogue regarding the implications of consumer culture, Trash Track is important because it clearly illustrates how embedding sensors on everyday objects can generate data that can used to fine-tune municipal services and protocols. We take it for granted that citizens can act as sensors by alerting municipal authorities about deficiencies (potholes, broken streetlights, etc.) so—as it becomes more feasible—it only follows that we should equip the fixtures that populate the city with the means to ‘report’ as well. Tremendous effort has been expended to transform the smartphone into a robust mobile sensor platform – we will benefit greatly once we start directing some of this energy into outfitting public space with similar capabilities.(3)

[Concept diagrams for Chromaroma visualizations / photo: Chromaroma blog]

Statement four: territories > maps

The above images are a series of concept diagrams for the visualizations at the heart of Chromaroma, a social game that allows users of the London Underground and the Cycle Hire bike sharing service to track their movements through the city while engaging in friendly competition. Players of the public beta of the service register their underground Oyster Card (RFID ID) and bike sharing accounts and log trips and achievements through a related social network. Every subway trip a user makes scores them points, teams compete to capture stations and the network randomly assigns ‘missions’ that reward bonuses and multipliers for travelling to various destinations throughout the city. The incentives and achievements offered to players borrow heavily from the location-based game Foursquare, but while the latter service (essentially) reduces the city to a banal matrix of commercial establishments, Chromaroma piggybacks on the user experience of a public asset. Harry Beck’s 1931 Tube Map is one of the most iconic images in 20th century graphic design and the clarity of that schematic essentialized the representation of a key piece of urban infrastructure and promoted the diagrammatic style of thinking that underpins contemporary information visualization. While the so-called gamification phenomenon(4) is generally quite suspect, Chromaroma achieves a remarkable feat in seamlessly superimposing game mechanics on everyday civic actions of hopping on the subway or utilizing the bike share program – players are quite literally invited into the representational space of the ubiquitous ‘subway diagram’ and are able to replace a top-down system map with an interactive visualization that charts their engagement with public transit. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Chromaroma creator Toby Barnes described the goal for working with game systems as promoting exploration, facilitating collaborative construction and instilling participants with a “sense of achievement”. The social game is slated to expand to incorporate bus, tram and boat transit and when the service moves out of beta it will be very interesting to see if they can build a (presumably advertising-based) business model around promoting the use of public transit. Two decades ago, in an article entitled  “The Computer for the 21st Century”, ubiquitous computing founder Mark Weiser argued against virtual reality (VR) by highlighting the fact that VR environments “were only maps, not territories” – given that were in the midst of an era that celebrates a constant stream of nonsensical information graphics, we should heap praise on any visualization project that simultaneously promotes exploration of the world and positive civic action.

The next post in this series will deal with Memory and the City.


(1) See Steenson’s essay “Urban Software: The Long View” published in the catalogue [PDF] essay for last year’s HABITAR exhibition at LABoral.
(2) Toward the Sentient City is essential – I highly recommend spending a few hours on the exhibit site perusing the work that was produced and the “responses” that were commissioned.
(3) Beyond Trash Track, Combing through the SENSEable City Lab’s archives reveals a body of work rife with provocative experiments that call into question how we represent and experience the city – the work done by this group will prove foundational for the myriad of applications that will be produced with open data.
(4) There is no shortage of perspectives being offered regarding gamification at the moment, if you are unfamiliar with the term Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 presentation “Design Outside the Box” is as good a place to start as any.

About the Author: Greg J. Smith a Toronto-based designer and researcher with interests in media theory and digital culture. Extending from a background in architecture, his research considers how contemporary information paradigms affect representational and spatial systems. Greg is a designer at Mission Specialist, blogs at Serial Consign, writes a column on emerging technology for Current Intelligence and is a managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain. He currently teaches in the CCIT program (University of Toronto/Sheridan College) and at OCAD University.

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