Be Counted! Return Your Census!

Posted: May 26th, 2008 | No Comments »

Path Intelligence presentation at the latest Where 2.0 conference drew some attention from the media (e.g. Shops track customers via mobile phone) and legitimate concerns on the derive of reality mining, behavioral tracking, and the type of research on geographically-anchored digital footprints I am involved in. The debate crystalizes around the issues of gathering data from people without their knowledge and the risk to reveal individuals from anonymized and aggregated sensor data. Similar concerns also raised lately from Google Street View vehicles capturing the streets of Rome (and their face-blurring workaround) or the use of Bluetooth scanning to reveal mobility traces. They also apply to my analysis of georeferenced photos and other digital footprints. I make sure to cover the privacy and ethical issues in my publications (confronting this work to my peers’ ethic).

However I try to slightly differentiate myself from these approaches that rely on the deployment of ad-hoc sensor infrastructures. First, my approach innovates in exploiting anonymized, aggregated, publicly available data. Second, I apply the results to the context of cities services (e.g. tourism) and develop tools and techniques for the interests of citizens and visitors. Of course it implies revealing information that are not of primary benefits of each individual who contributes to a census. They can challenge political decisions that were previously taken based on assumptions or limited survey data. For instance it might lead to a decrease in the offering of public transports in a unjustifiably well-connected neighborhood. They can create a new private service such as Google My Location which relies on millions of its Mobile Maps users who happen to have phones with built-in GPS devices to improve the quality of their positioning system.

census be counted
Traditional contemporary census campaing in Cambridge, MA

That being said, the discussion on linking the behavioral data back to the individual reminds me of the Web 1.0b and the debates around the use of cookies to keep track of browsing behaviors. Back in that days, some arguments were based on legitimate concerns but also on misconceptions of the purpose of cookies. Now in the ubicomp days, I also see my scientific contribution in providing an understanding of the potentials of digital footprints analysis (similarly as the You are Here project) for good or for worse. It comes down to needing to have open discussions about the implications of these things (see Data sharing threatens privacy). The people making policies don’t know what is possible, and they don’t necessarily make policies that are in our best interest. For some reason, I prefer myself or Sandy Pentland (see What Your Phone Knows About You) in raising the awareness on the opportunities and issues than somebody with potential lower ethical standards.

Update: In Privacy concerns about the capture of electronic traces in urban viz projects, Nicolas discusses a fresh article in The Guardian “Bluetooth is watching: secret study gives Bath a flavour of Big Brother” giving some heat to the Cityware Project on privacy concerns over bluetooth tracking solutions.

Finally, the discussion and my work exemplify the shift from large-scale top-down big brother to more local bottom-up little sister types of people monitoring as coined by Jan Chipchase in Big Brother / Little Sister:

“When it comes to surveillance most people think of big brother, but increasingly its your (early adopting, tech savvy, sensor loaded) little sister. Which makes the whole notion of opting out of technology adoption one of whether to opt out of society”

The Economist also has a piece on with in its article on A world of witnesses and the concept of “sousveillance”:

Does this trend give any cause for concern? To some people it suggests a coming surveillance state, as all sorts of titbits about people’s personal lives that used to be private become input for new services such as traffic maps, health warnings or security alerts. Those worries, evoking an earlier era of top-down control by a Big Brother, are mostly misplaced, claims Mr Verclas. A neighbourhood-watch community with global reach is a better metaphor. Instead of surveillance, watching from above, society will rely on a new and opposite concept, sousveillance, watching from below. Such arguments may make more sense in California than in China.

Relation to my thesis: My thesis will certainly include a thorough ethic and privacy issues section. Looking for an angle from the current discussions on the topic. Part of my contribution will be to discuss the implications of sousveillance raised by the analysis of digital footprints.

Report on the Real-Time Cities Round Table

Posted: May 20th, 2008 | No Comments »

The round table on Real-Time Cities that took place last month ended up being quite a success. The aim of this event was to gather experts that influence the visions of real-time cities and discuss about the issues, promises and implications inherent to their development. About 25 scholars, practitioners and students from the fields of urban planning, social sciences, architecture, geography, cartography, computer science, interaction design, industrial design and digital media filled the room. We asked 6 main speakers (Georg Gartner, Adam Greenfield, Jonathan Raper, Carlo, Raj Singh, and Paul Torrens) from different disciplines to talk about their work and the resulting implications to real-time cities.

I have summarized the interventions and discussions into 8-pages report now available on the event web page. I mixed Andrea Vaccari‘s details transcripts with Bernd Resch and Jon Reades notes with my own recollection of thoughts generated by this afternoon. It covers the key themes presented and discussed: new information resources for cities, describe real-time dynamics of the city, smart environments (the example of wayfinding), ambient information (the example of Location-Based Services), the city as a Real-Time Control System, and the vision on the opportunities and their implications.

Realtime Report

The introduction to the topic of the round table goes as follows:

A city is, of course, by default real-time as exemplified by the street sell of umbrellas when it starts to rain in Barcelona (Figure 1). However, people moving and acting in a city base their decisions on information that is, in most cases, not instantaneous as rain drops and not synchronized with their present time and place. In recent years, the increasing deployment of sensors and handheld electronic devices environments has reshaped these processes and impacted the urbanization of the city. In a real-time city, citizens can be aware and react to events that they can’t see in their immediate vicinity or that took place days before. While humans still set the boundaries, more and more of the critical life support systems of the city are instrumented to both sense and make sense of the world around them . Or as in the “Synchronic Society” envisioned by Bruce Sterling every object worthy of human or machine consideration generates a small history. These histories are not dusty archives locked away on ink and paper. They are informational resources, manipulable in real time .

In the literature on ubiquitous computing and urban planning, the descriptions of the real-time city often employs the terms: pulsing cloud of data, instantaneous information, seamlessness integration, empowerment of the citizens, enhancement of our perception, reveal the city as we experience it, patterns of behavior, observe and improve. They highlight the revolution in urban informatics that gets embedded in the fabric of our lives and giving us the ability to show previously invisible urban processes. Moreover, real-time data have the ability to reveal a city as a whole, instantaneously, in excruciating detail, but for the first time also alive. This information become crucial to monitor the urban system and react to its conditions instantaneously.

Visualizing Informational Distance Between Cities

Posted: May 17th, 2008 | No Comments »

Barcelona-based Bestiario group has recently updated its website with new data visualizations including a very nyteish tridimensional scheme named City Distances that represents the strength of relation between cities from searches on Google.

Bestiario City Distances2-1 Bestiario City Distances4

Relation to my thesis: inspiring arty exploitation of content with geographical references available on the web. Certainly more polished than one of my early attempts.

The Hybrid City by Phil Hubbard

Posted: May 13th, 2008 | No Comments »

City In Phil Hubbard‘s fascinating book Key Ideas in Geography: the city there is a chapter on the worth reading in the context of science and technology as makers of the urban landscape. Each chapter of the book develops a critical discussion on the different perspectives that define and specify the ‘city’, suggesting that it is only by bringing these different ways of mapping the city together that we can begin to make sense of cities. The Hybrid City focuses on the current ideas about the place of technology in cities. It particularly criticizes the accounts where technology is allocated a determining role in urban life and argues that it is entwined in a more complex process of city-making. The introductory paragraphs highlight that new technologies may not be more profound than those which preceded them and as previously argumented and published:

The tendency to talk of new technologies in hyperbolic terms in unfortunate. One consequence is the relative neglect of ‘past’ technologies and a failure to think critically about the new social formations that are associated with successive technological innovations.

For instance, the city has often been asserted as a site of innovation and civilization, while in contrast the rural is seen as technologically backward. This goes without considering that urban centers emerged as agriculture began to create surplus of goods due to the emergence of ‘hydraulic society’. In this story, the catalyst of the formation of cities is the application of new technology seen to have profound effects for the organization and reproduction of society (that reminded me about the Farmer Technology Acceptation Index). Similarly, infrastructure networks less celebrated than the Internet such as water, sewage, gas and electricity were implicated in the making of populous cities. Some, such as the light on the street, became symbols of modernization. Other technologies during the ‘urban revolution’ replaced the traditional notion of time (qualitative time) and imposed the modern urban (quantitative) time.

The discussion on virtual cities concurs with the Infrastructure theme of Sliding Friction:

It is easy to get swept up in the hyperbole surrounding virtualism. But we should remember that virtual flow still require the construction and maintenance of complex physical infrastructure in the form of dense webs of optic cables, broadband telecom connections and location area networks (LAN).
Clearly, focusing solely on electronic and digital infrastructures when water, gas and electrical networks remain vital to industrial and domestic life deflects attention from the myriad ways the ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies entwine in the social reproduction of urban life.
Graham (2004a) estimates fully 80 per cent of the costs of a network are associated with this traditional, messy business of getting it into the ground in highly congested urban areas.
A holistic, trans-disciplinary and robust understanding of the city as a critical amalgamation of infrastructure networks is required if we are to understand the relations between cities and technologies (and the ever-attendant threat that his relationship will break down if networks fail)

In a technological determinist approach, technology is seen to drive urbanization with successive innovation triggering major changes in the form and function of cities. Same goes with the opposing vision of ‘noir urbanism’ described for instance in City of Panic. However, a look beyond generalized and deterministic discourses about the impact of technology with empirical detail shows that technologies are woven into the fabric of city life. In same scope as my work on taxi drivers and their sat-nav system and the exploration of the entwining of the social and the technical:

This recognizes that technologies are not drivers of urban change in and themselves, and co-evolve with the urban fabric as they become woven into the social, economic and political life of cities.

In this argumentation that new technologies do not drive urban change, but are rather caught up in complex networks (or ‘socio-technical assemblages’) which incorporate all manner of actants. As described in Latour’s Paris: Ville Invisible, that considers the role of street furniture in the life o the city:

Paris is conceived as a network, then its power is diffused through an array of seemingly mundane object, each of which is, nonetheless, part of the whole. Equally, each plays a part in a complex and constantly mutating city-assemblage that holds together through the affordances and interactions of objects.

Hubbard illustrates this with the role of the pieces of rolled carpet that guide water around the gutters to clean the streets as a type of urban actor.

protection Badly decapitated traffic light
Overlooked urban actors?

Some of these urban actors take the form of speed cameras, infrared car number place recognition, mobile phone tracking, digitally mediated consumption system, CCT system that transform the landscape of the contemporary city into a militarized scanscape. The spectre of cities being controlled by a faceless and unverifiable technology. However it is quite wrong to suggest that technology is becoming all-powerfull. In fact, surveillance is ultimately about the imposition of human norms and behaviors and ultimately, CCTV may not be discriminator in itself, but its operator and programmers may be (giving me some arguments to discuss on the obligatory ‘Privacy issues’ section of my thesis)

Relation to my thesis: In the end of a intensive period of paper submissions/revisions and new project proposals, I take some time to (as planned) further explore urban theories. The Hybrid City takes the concepts of urban computing and the city with a British social geography with the critical discussion of the contribution of key authors and thinkers. It has many similarities in the content and in style with Crang and Graham’s Sentient Cities Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space and Graham’s The Cybercities Reader.