In my World Information City Doggie Bag

Posted: June 3rd, 2009 | No Comments »

I returned from a weekend in Paris. with a rich doggie bag of take-aways and food for thoughts collected at the World Information City conference. The event focused on the major themes within the wide field of new urban geographies (i.e. mobilities, global flows, local dynamics, new forms of strategies of security, maps of emerging patterns of distributed action) with a generous brochette of theorists, scientists and activists.
John Urry opened the conference questioning the current period of human history made of unprecedentedly high and growing mobility in the light of dramatic climate change, the peaking of oil supplies. Indeed, beyond peak oil there is a massive potential for failure due to the dependence of society on mobility of humans, objects (mainly good such as water, food and oil) and the dependence of mobility on oil. Therefore, John examined future possible scenarios as to the character, scale and significance of mobility patterns with the imminent extinction of petroleum man through an Autogeddon. One scenario described the end of the fiesta of mobility with the return to “local sustainability” with a global shift towards lifestyles more intensely local and smaller in scale (a scenario going against some of the very reasons why cities exist that enable large scale operation and the need of anonymity). Another scenario, painted the possible emergence of “regional warlordism” with oil, gas and water wars leading to a relocalisation of mobility patterns (increasing separation between different regions). As Hobbesian war of each warlord dominated region/city against their neighbors. Plausible considering that the mobility of US army that consumes as much oil as a country like Sweden would have its mobility highly reduced. Finally, John Urry examined the scenario of the “digital panopticon” where digitized information is inserted within movement and increasingly in chips embedded within each person. digital development would be intrusive and threaten civil liberties as they transform the nature of the individual person. Linking information that lead to limit the freedom to walk, drive or move without connection being made with other information held about each person.

Each of theses scenario seem questionable and negotiable. They where not necessary meant to predict an assured evolution, but to engage the debate on the consequences of the development of “information cities” with mobility being dependant on oil and code. In conclusion, the 20st century based on mobility and oil has given a very bad hand to the 21st century. It provides a very complex environment where researchers need to transcent their own specialities, jump over and build bridges accress artificial disciplinary boundaries. And this is exactly what the World Information City conference was about. The major frictions e conference largely focused on the frictions of code/data with liberties/privacy; basically are we moving to an airport model of live? (reminding me to some extends of Airport code/spaces).

On that topic, Stephen Graham gave compeling examples of the remaking of urban spaces through new forms strategies of security. The emerging militarized control society encouraged by the dream of the perfect technology and the myth of the perfect power. They take multiple forms such as the security at the olympics and other large sport events (see paper Exemplifications of Surveillance through Sport Mega-Events), the Darpa Urban Challenge, or passage point urbanism that profile individues entry to some spaces. On the other hand, this evolution is not centralized and sometimes even contradictory, therefore refuting any conspiracy theory. Moreover the messiness and unpredictability of the world seriously challenge any technophilica dreams and their strategies of bordering (more on that in Sentient Cities Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space and The Traditional, Messy Business of Getting Infrastructure into the Ground and more generally The Cybercities Reader.

Technophiliac dreams and situated practices
Stephen Graham confronting technophiliac dreams with situated practices

Bruno Latour gave his spin to the notion of panipticon arguing arguing that with the kind of information (mmhmm… transformations) of the invisible city we should rather present it as an oligopticon that sees very little information very good. Based on his book the Paris: Invisible City, he gave several examples of oligopticons that are blind but plugged in, partially intelligent, temporarily competent and locally complete. For instance, Latour described a classic, very informatized situation room of the Parisian police, there is one person who pushes figurines on a map, because all the information persent in the room are not cognitively understandable. This policeman materialize the information through his practice that transform the information or as described in Paris: Invisible City

Can we say that the police officers in charge of traffic dominate all of Paris? Precisely not. Proof of that is in the strangest oligopticon of all, in these rooms containing so many of them. Close to a computer screen an official is sitting at a table looking at a map of Paris on a scale of 7,500 to 1, shifting around wooden figurines that he takes from a box as if he were playing Monopoly. Why? “Because SURF” he explains “gives an image that’s too precise! All the traffic problems in Paris have a ripple effect spreading over several kilometres. No computerized map enables us to vary the scale fast enough: either it’s too big or it’s too small; the frames are always too rigid. Here, with the figurines, I can see both the whole and the details, anticipate better and spread out my forces more effectively”.

Latour further attacked the current hype that the digital will bring us visibility. Indeed, with all their tools and visualization, Bloomberg could not detect the eve of the financial crisis. In fact, we are more aware of the limitation of the transformation and moderation of the information now with Google Maps than before with paper maps (further feeding the conclusion of my thesis on uncertainty and granularity of information!)

Megalomania and paranoia
Bruno Latour on dominating traffic in Paris with figurines. Exemplifying the limitations of oligopticons.

With a contrasting techno-determinist tone, Carlo Ratti proposed solutions for sustainable mobilities such as CopenCycle, Track Trash to capture objects removal chain) and approaches to build a city as a real-time control system by feeding the complexity of urban dynamics back to people. However, these proposals mainly aim at optimizing the urban life, but it is still unclear what the parameters for optimization are and who defines them (preferably an transparent process). Moreover, there is still efforts to grasp the unentended consequences of the real-time. For instance there is no study of the feedback loop the reveal the implications a real-time control system (see for instance Cities as Networks in Geographical Euclidean Space).

Despite these critiques, Saskia Sassen encouraged the audience in thinking in terms of trajectories (chain of implications) rather than good or bad. Particularly when considering the role of city (and technologies) as disablers of powerlessness. For instance, in the case of illigal immigrants in California who were granted legal papers, their status became a voice in Los Angeles, not in the rural areas of the state. Of course, the same could have happened without technology, but technology become an unablers of extraordinary order of magnitude (see for instance in the financial domain). Can this same technology can be use of other domains such as environmentalism or urbanism that relies on the topologigraphic plan of the city is less and less effective with the current respresentation of the city.

I thought my talk People as sensors; people as actors (slides), given at the conference Data City workshop, echoed rather well with these notions of powerlessness and oligopticon. I described the ability to exploit open data with open “transformation” processes that aim at revealing some specific aspects (sentient city) of the city and improving its mechanisms (responsive city). I also explained the limitations of my oligopticons as tools that make the invisible visible reveal some elements of urban dynamics without explaining them. The interpretations of the analysis generate hypothesizes that are difficult to prove considering the messiness and complexity of urban dynamics. I suggested that only qualitative observation could help better understand the revealed. As suggested by John Urry, it could very well complement more traditional mobility studies (once again. further feeding the conclusion of my dissertation).

In that workshop, Christophe Cariou, founder of Everydatalab presented an innovative process of mixing quantitative data (anonymous logs of calls, handovers and sms) with user-generated content to map the FĂȘte de la Musique night in Paris. In collaboration with Orange Labs, he exploited data visualized in Urban Mobs to extract the different scenes and the communities formed around them. The “abnormal” temporal signature of cellular network antennas help detecting the areas effected by the event as well as betweenness indicators (Girvan-Newman algorithm) in a graph formed by mobility traces (Christophe called them “steps”)
Mapping the Fete de la musique from digital traces
Map of the different scenes of activities at the FĂȘte de la Musique in Paris

Besides presenting leading-edge investigation and innovative work on urban data analysis, I feel that we, researchers, still lack of discours that motivate our work (already expressed in Debates on Privacy-Preserving Statistics and Data Mining). This means going beyond the communication of the fascination for mathematical and statistical models and maps. For instance, Reading Steven Strogatz’s column on Math and the City, I feel that an important point of vulgarization should also communicate on the coarse grained laws of urban phenomena we need to discover and why use human networks can help us overcome the current mathematical understanding of complexity.

Moreover, I believe that we, researcher, need to listen more to the critiques and understand their foundations (for instance by reading La tyranie technologique or Eric Sadin’s surveillance globale). That should help evolve our practice and discourse; for instance we need to understand that it is not the anonymity of the data that raise concerns (by default they are expected to be so), but it is the ability to categorize society or perform social rating (as in marketing) that worries most. Similarly, in the worry of simplicity we, researchers, present the distribution of mobile phones as an close representation of society, inferring that at a 120% rate, everybody should wear at least a mobile phone (which is not the case). This simplification that depicts any ability for a paniptical view of society contradicts the oligoptical results of our works.

The critiques on the frictions of code/data with liberties/privacy we generate are therefore understandable. However, I believe the persons critiquing the analysis of digital footprints also suffer from lack of understanding of the motivations, processes and limitations of our research work. For instance, the disregards for people co-evolution with technologies lead to some sort of “negative techno-determitism” discourse in which technology now drives us to the wall, as if we suddenly had lost our proven abilities to hack and appropriate it. Similarly some critique discard the fact that “code” and data are now part of the life of the city, the makes the infrastructure and services work (our society is based on them, such as the domains of finance, planification). Moving beyond the state of denial of our dependency, the discussion should be about: what do we do with these data? with palettes of scenarios going from burying data as toxic waste to their use to develop the perfect power.

Between these two extremes, I have a lot of sympathy for Christophe Aguiton‘s proposition on the 3 layers of politics of living maps formed with data within a common good and part of a transparent process (algorithms) with an accountable set of rules and laws. Indeed, as the politics of robots and crawlers is here to stay (we depend on them), every single algorithm that touch the common good should be scrutanized (like we do for every element of society). In this society made of multiple oligopticons, the concern is not to make things visible (as argued for the panopticon), but rather to continue dealing the the opacity of information and politics.

An example of this process was taking place at WikiPlaza on the side of the conference. It featured the first set of Montre Verte prototypes made of a watch with two environmental sensors (ozone, noise) and a mobile phone that regularly communicates the collected data to an open platform which openly stores and visualizes them. My hat is off to the FING that proves that with the right people, a think tank can also become a do tank. Hopefully they will publicize their experiments of the Hexagon. The green watch will be featured soon in Marseille for Lift France.

montre verte
The first prototype of the Green Watch

Relation to my thesis: Conferences like World Information City serve the purpose to treat arguments that would be hard to voice in an academic conference of my domain. The discussions helped futher developped my understanding and arguments on the frictions of code/data with liberties/privacy; a theme it is important to master when working on people + technology + space.