Digital Technologies to Shape the Future of Urban Transportation Planning

Posted: February 28th, 2008 | No Comments »

As part of the Responsive City Initiative at MIT, Christopher Zegras presented a state of the use of digital technologies to shape the future of urban transportation planning. Current research threads in the domain focus on sensing and planning activities, movements, morphology, infrastructure and energy, yet there is lack of common platform. Simulation and forecasting are the main analytical methods. Yet the field is mainly driven by the private sector to the point of questioning the role of academic research. The big players include (in the US and UK):

These multiple market-driven actions leave governments way behind the curve. For instance, the many data used for planning the future of Boston were collected in 1991 (!). Similarly, Los Angeles owns one of the widest network of road sensors. Yet these data are only use to master the the real-time dynamics of the infrastructure and then thrown to the garbage. The archives are not used to improve the system (!). In other situations, governments delegate the efforts the private sector and lose control of the data. So what is the role for academic research here? Maybe to shade light on the privacy issues, provide a more holistic view on this ecosystem, understand the implications for governance? Before transport planning was about predict and accommodate and it become more observe and improve. In that perspective, a research avenue deals with user innovation and understand the implications for governance. As WikiCity aims to explore: how do we empower customers of transport systems and give them back real-time, mobile ubiquitous data? Similar to what TomTom MapShare does by letting users modify and share maps.

Relation to my thesis: Understanding the current state of the implication of real-time data for urban transportation planning. Interestingly there is now a focus on volunteer generated data and their implications as well as understanding how sensor data can be disseminated into our practices (problem of their granularity was mentioned, how solution satisfy lifestyles and preferences (such as the new ride sharing services) but also techniques to evaluate the viability of these solutions.

Revealing Paris Through Velib' Data

Posted: February 27th, 2008 | 1 Comment »

In parallel to my current senseable activities, I took some hours to build a follow-up to my work on Bicing and extend it to the Paris Velib’ system. For that purpose, Mathieu Arnold kindly granted me access to a large Velib’ dataset he has been accumulating over the past months. The potential of the archived and real-time data of the 900+ stations could actually lead to a nice little project on revealing the city through the citizen’s use of Velib’.

velib average nb bikes feb 10
First mapping of the Velib’ data. Average number of bikes available at each station on February 10.

The video is available in the Revealing Paris Through Vélib’ Data page.

GPS Locators Map Out Paths with Online Photos

Posted: February 26th, 2008 | No Comments »

This Associated Press story, GPS locators map out paths with online photos, describes geotagging potential and its utility, along with current methods. “But relatively few photos are posted with location information yet — Flickr estimates 5 percent“.

Via The Map Room.

Relation to my thesis: collecting information on the trends driving the potentials of Tracing the Visitor’s Eye.

Life in the Real-time City: Mobile Telephones and Urban Metabolism

Posted: February 26th, 2008 | No Comments »

Townsend, A. M. (2000). Life in the real-time city: mobile telephones and urban metabolism. Journal of Urban Technology, 7(2):85–104.
Back in 2000, Anthony Townsend wrote Life in the real-time city: mobile telephones and urban metabolism, an article that argues that new mobile communication systems are fundamentally rewriting the spatial and temporal constraints of all manners of human communications. As signs of this radical change, accessibility becomes more important than mobility and mobile phones increasingly add an element of uncertainty about physical location to our urban interactions. For instance, as many as one-fifth of cell phones users lie about their location when talking on a mobile phone. “For urban planning, it might mean that the city will change far faster than the ability to understand it from a centralized perspective, let alone formulate plans and policies that will have the desired outcomes”.

As decision-making and management of everyday life is increasingly decentralized, the complexity of these systems become greater and therefore less predictable. In parallel, this decentralization creates myriad new interactions and potential interactions between individuals that is dramatically speeding the metabolism of urban systems, increasing capacity and efficiency.The “real-time city” in which system conditions can be monitored and reacted to instantaneously, has arrived. [...] Real-time systems are defined by an ability to constantly monitor environmental conditions vital to the operation of the system.

In fact without efforts to develop new knowledge and tools for understanding the implications of these new technologies, city planners run the risk of losing touch with the reality of city streets.. Townsend takes an urbanist’s perspective on the application of new communication technologies within cities by their inhabitants (i.e. how do they reshape basic aspects of urban life). However contrary to traditional urban planning, which often assigns agency to a city as a unit (e.g. the city is busy, the city in unfriendly), there are tools for understanding complex systems like cities as consequences of many interactions of individuals. Yet, these tools must go beyond the classical approaches taken in urban planning “the widespread bit-by-bit reconstruction of cities is going largely unnoticed by planners accustomed to visualizing cities through aerial photographs“. In consequence, individuals must become the unit of analysis instead of the institution, neighborhood, city or region. These types of new insights can be gained from interpretive methods such as ethnography (e.g. Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City) or a psychoanalysts approach. Then the significance of individual-level technological interventions on larger-scale social systems such as cities could be simulated through agent-based modeling.

Also blogged by Nicolas in Increasing pace of interactions in our cities.

Relation to my thesis: This text refers to some pieces of my works. First, similarly to Antoine Picon’s suggestions last week, Townsend stresses the focus on individual interactions (micro events) that make the city. There is also a reference to some sort of glocalization of the city generated by the telephone and mobile phones (decentralizations in urban sprawl and intensification of the center). Second, there is a practical discussion on how taxi driver’s archaic profession was transformed by mobile phones. “The mobile phone permits dynamic reallocation of the taxi system’s resources, resulting in less wasted time searching for fares“. Something that I can argue with my taxi driver study and the importance of satnav not only to improve the efficiency, but also to decrease the stress (improve the quality of life). Third, there is a reference that mobile technologies add uncertainty to our urban interactions (CatchBob!). Finally, this text revives agent-based modeling as a potential output of my thesis.

Towards a City of Events: Digital Media and Urbanity

Posted: February 24th, 2008 | 1 Comment »

Some notes and thought from Antoine Picon‘s informal talk at this morning Ambient Informatics course. Picon is Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology at Harvard. His background make him a perfect observer of what is happening today and skeptical of the benefits of technologies. His conversation started by agreeing that digital media is changing the city as we experience it. However, the nature and the scope of this change remain unclear. For instance, unlike William Mitchell evocation in City of Bits of the dematerialization, we now know that it is far from being the case, physical circulation has increased in direct proportion to the rise of the electronic exchanges. Similarly, there has been the assumption that electronics link to the dispersion of cities (e.g. sprawl) such as in the Silicon Valley. In fact, this perspective is in contrast with the reality of the importance of centers and concentrated urban senses (see Manuel Castells or Saskia Sassen‘s works). Finally, we can assume that new means of communication will affect primarily urban life and urban experience rather than the urban layout and fabric. This contradicts the current developments of social softwares such as facebook that builds communities based on who you know physically. In fact, as suggested by Steve Woolgar virtual interactions are all more vivid when they are based on a material reality of some kind.

So should we consider that the digital media city is just the city we know with hypertrophied characteristics, more circulation, a more complex sequence of centers and peripheries, more networks? Or as suggested by Marc Augé‘s discourse we might very well live in a state of supermodernity and in supermodern cities rather than being on the verge of a different mode of existence.

Urban mapping is a mean to lead us to explore further what is happening today in the urban realm. Picon presented the evolution of the map representation of the city. In the Renaissance, many maps were about presenting the portrait of the city, its physiognomy, like a person, and its main monuments. Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maps were more and more often about urban geometry. In the nineteenth century, maps conveyed notions about new dimensions of the city like its networks (e.g. sewer maps, what happens in the network. such as surveillance, state of traffic). Nowadays, with the complexity of cities, Even their centers are hard to understand using the traditional means of cartography. Contemporary maps might come with two scales. First, mapping globably what is happening (i.e. global perception). These maps present us the city from a control room perspective. As highlighted by Bruno Latour, these maps only represent selected point of view of the city. Second, mapping what is happening to the individual (i.e. particular and local aspects, such as the use of satnav systems). These maps show us the city as we experience it, with the nearby possibilities offered to us. Beyond being produced using digital technologies, these two scales share another property: they how occurrences, events, situations, scenarios rather than objects, arrangements and organizations. The first type functions at the scale of the city, the second at the scale of the individual. Since the 50s and 60s, the city is more and more defined as a program of events. Archigram‘s work reflects very well this evolution. Similarly, the Paris evoked in the Debord’s psychogeographic maps was a matrix of events and situations. Nowadays, it is those events, festivals, celebrations of all kinds that define cities as surely as monuments. In fact even pieces of architecture become events (e.g. the Guggenheim in Bilbao)

In fact, very often nothing happens in the city, but the city is the event (e.g. being in Eurodisney is part of the event) with all its “hyper-local” micro-events. The weather or traffic conditions have been transformed into an everyday event. We have now the capacity to reveal them in real-time. However, it is not yet entirely clear what should one do with this real time possibilities.

Then Picon went to on talking about the suspention of the cricis of historicity. That is that we currently live in the circle and to get out of it we must think about apocalyptic changes. Digital media is making promises, but in practice it shows nothing on how it changes the world or the city. It does not aim at a radically different future. Digital technology is proliferating without promises. Therefore we live in a suspended present. Real-time maps developed at the SENSEable City Lab shows life how it is and no how it could be. In fact, in the media map how it could get worse, and digital media participates to that. As a provocation, Picon mention the purpose now is not to open doors as the MIT Media Lab has been doing. This kind of ideology of figuring out the “how” is over. The real-time maps are a mean to engage the discussion but of course do do not solve the problem. Therefore we should focus on the “why” and what is really problematic today and engage in the construction of a possible future. For instance, digital media could help introducing sustainability more sexy way (such as what Tim Taylor presented at Lift08). I liked the comment that our current approach is very similar to biological science: we try to understand a living system through observations, and then think on how this knowledge can solve problems, develop medicaments and cure diceases. In summary, we have an agenda, but we are not really clear about it. What do we do with all these real-time data?

Junno wrote some follow-up thoughts.

Relation to my thesis: Antoin Picon historical description of the city from its physiognomy, then infrastructures and finally global and individual events is very relevant to sketch a future instantiation of WikiCity that will feature how to connect these maps of events to people.

Mapping Real-Time Trains Traffic

Posted: February 21st, 2008 | 1 Comment »

Two projects mapping the predicted real-time positions of trains. Since train operators do not disclose the actual location of a train, these services must use indirect ways to collect these data. Where Are Trains (France) parses online schedule boards of different stations such as the one of Paris Montparnasse. The position of the train obtained in real-time upon Arrivals and with at least a 1-h delay for departures. Then the system uses pre-builded time profiles to estimate the current location of trains by-passing potential stopovers. Similarly Train Map (Switzerland) uses train timetable, and does not yet show the actual GPS-positions of the trains. “But, as Swiss trains are almost always on time, most of the time the position is accurate”.

Swiss Train Map Zurich
Tracking a train in Zürich with Train Map.
Relation to my thesis: The predictive approach used in this systems generates uncertain data that determine a location in space (where is it) and time (when was it there). Does the temporal granularity of these location information affects the decision making? In what kind of scenario would people rely on these informations

Mapping real-time train traffic follows the trend of vessel tracking (e.g. planes and boats)

Urban Mobs

Posted: February 20th, 2008 | No Comments »

In partnership with Orange Labs in Paris, faberNovel developed Urban Mobs a spatio-temporal animation of the mobile phone network activity (density of voice communication I guess) during the “Fête de la musique” in Paris in 2007. The visualization, very similar to Real Time Rome, is based on a dataset of 24 hours (video of the result).


Awareness of Wireless Networks Availability and Quality

Posted: February 18th, 2008 | 1 Comment »

During Lift, Bernard Paques posted some measures of the fluctuating quality of service of the WiFi network. While the quality of a space can be revealed by its physical aspect, wireless services have very little if no affordances. What is interesting is everybody builds its own general awareness of the quality of a “cloud of connectivity“, from the past experiences in similar environments and folk psychology. The “communicating bamboo” project developed by Orange Labs shows this necessity to reveal the availability and quality of a wireless service.


New York Talk Exchange (NYTE)

Posted: February 18th, 2008 | No Comments »

On Wednesday the New York Talk Exchange (NYTE) project will debut as part of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition, “Design and the Elastic Mind.” Based on the data of telecommunications traffic (voice traffic + IP traffic) flowing to and from New York City, the project aims at visualizing and exploring the connection that the city neighborhoods entertain with the rest of the World. It should reveal how the heart of New York pulsates, how it changes over the space and time, and how the city’s neighborhoods differ from each other by maintaining special and distinct relationships with particular cities and countries.

Nyte Senseable
World Within New York shows how different neighborhoods reach out to the rest of the world via the AT&T telephone network. The city is divided into a grid of 2-kilometer square pixels where each pixel is colored according to the regions of the world wherein the top connecting cities are located. The widths of the color bars represent the proportion of world regions in contact with each neighborhood.
See the Press Release.

Sliding Friction Online

Posted: February 13th, 2008 | No Comments »

Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities is now publicly available online. Enjoy the content on or download the PDF.

Sliding Friction - Theme 1 Sliding Friction - Theme 2 Sliding Friction - Theme 4 Sliding Friction - Theme 3