The Potholes in the Urban Information Landscape

Posted: January 8th, 2010 | No Comments »

John Tolva wrote an short essay “Data: our second city” condensing a year of conferences and talks informed by IBM’s Smarter Cities perspective all with a Chicago bent. Certainly also inspired by the texts and talks of Dan Hill and Adam Greenfield, he starts with the observation of the data that now continuously permeates the streetscape (i.e. similar to my new urban actors slide) to propose discuss the near-future opportunities of their presence:

Visualization as to engage the dialogue: “our city planners and citizenry need to be at least as conversant with the language of information architecture as we are, at a basic level, about physical architecture. Call it an aesthetics of data. This is as much a matter of becoming aware of what’s happening around us, of figuring out the most elegant ways of making the unseen felt, of thinking of our urban spaces as I described the interactions at Michigan and Congress“. Our work in Florence is an example of the use of visualization to integrate citizen into the discussion.

Data to empower: “Our plan for a networked urbanism should seek above all to be maximally enfranchising, lowering barriers to commerce and community.”

For this to happen, John suggests that:

We must take up this mantle and be active participants in the design of this networked urbanism. We must make our voice heard. From educating our elected representatives about the opportunities before us, to encouraging our youth — who increasingly live in a world of data — to think critically about their role in the urban fabric, we must embrace this challenge with the same passion embodied in our historical tradition of remarkable plans for Chicago.

However, John could have further suggested that we will need current processes to integrating evaluation tools/techniques/methods/procedures to ensure that our digital infrastructure avoids the mistakes of our physical infrastructure. An urban environment will make the envy not just of building architects but of information architects.
In addition, any strategy should take into consideration the imperfection of the software infrastructure; the kind of “potholes in the urban Information landscape” John describes:

But fissures in a city’s data infrastructure are as consequential as potholes. They are structural failings of a city at the most basic level, in a way that a busted piece of street art would never be.

Think of cell phone outages — “dark zones” — as potholes in the urban information landscape. Or consider GPS brownouts, such as cause error in bus-tracking when the CTA enters the satellite-blocking skyscraper canyon of the Loop. But these examples are minor compared to the real issue before us: how do we proactively build a city of information that is inclusionary, robust but flexible, and reflective of a city’s unique character?

Turn right, or not
Turn right, … or not. A classic pothole in the urban information landscape

Why do I blog this: Further collecting thoughts for future talks and essays; as well as linking other people’s work with my endeavors. The necessity to educate elected representatives, decision makers, companies and citizens are part of ongoing projects at Lift lab. Beyond developing visualization and workshops to educate and open dialogue between the different stakeholders of the urban space, we develop tools that enable to evaluate urban strategies.

The Blurry Status of Data Derivated from Open Data

Posted: January 8th, 2010 | No Comments »

Jonathan Raper, who chaired yesterday’s London set for information revolution during which London’ mayor announced the city’s open data project (see London datastore) explained why policies towards information has evolved in the UK from Thatcher’s ‘user pays’ principle to the opening governmental agencies datastores due to recent ‘digital transition’, ‘mobile revolution’ and ‘open source movements’; and warns that a lot of work has to be achieved to make this promised future happen:

However, this is only the beginning of the process:
- we have to unwind some of the commercial partnerships government has in place to manage its information to ensure that it is released without conditions;
- we have to remove provisions like limitations on ‘derived data’ products when new opendata services want to use government data as a framework;
- we must look for ways to ensure that the innovations to be created are offered to all with full accessibility;
- we must ensure that the legitimate privacy expectations of the citizen are not compromised by information releases.

Why do I blog this: The conditions and limitations on ‘derived data’ products is often overlooked in open interface/data initiatives, and developers/analysts/entrepreneur must often act in grey areas. At what point are data derived enough to lose their open/public/free status?

French-Speaking Researchers Reflect on Villes 2.0

Posted: January 6th, 2010 | No Comments »

Earlier last year, the FING, as part the the Villes 2.0 program, conducted a set of interviews on the development research in social and human sciences that study the relation between the information/communication technologies and the urban environment. Thierry Marcou and Sylvain Allemand asked french-speaking researchers in the domains of social sciences, urbansim, geography and information sciences (including myself) to reflect on the digital evolutions cities face; such as access and use of urban services, the approaches strategies and methods to understand the evolution and innovate with new urban services. The initial observation of their report entitled “La recherche urbaine à l’heure de la Ville 2.0“, highlight the necessity to consider the relation between ICTs and the urban environment beyond the infrastructures (e.g. politic to guarantee optimal coverage of a territory in high-speed Internet) and start to think about the implication in the urban context. In fact, these current strategies that aim at bringing infrastructure into the age of network culture still remain far from the goal of urban planning to arrange harmoniously people and activities in a territory (see Victory Gardens, or the Impact of the Financial Crisis on Architecture for some provoking thoughts).

A few concepts thoughts extracted from the report particularly caught my interest. Particularly the interview of geographer Jacques Levy who downplays the role of technologies to empower citizens:

“La ville n’est pas seulement gérée par les systèmes d’ingénierie, mais aussi par les habitants qui se rendent capables de maîtriser et de faire évoluer cet immense environnement qu’est une ville. Ils sont donc tous techniciens, en gérant des informations multiples sur les lieux ou en construisant des stratégies de mobilité”. Des citadins, rappelle Jacques Lévy, qui n’ont pas attendu l’internet pour devenir des acteurs, et par exemple, au travers de la civilité, « reconstruire la ville à chaque instant dans l’espace public ».

This notion of civility particularly important not to reduce the use of Internet technologies for radical ways to manage the urban (e.g. emerging urbanism), but also how they can contribute to the renewal of current models. For instant Levy discusses the necessity of decision makers to, from now on, deal with the “micro-arbitration” of citizens.

spatial coordination
Sailors navigating the Barcelona subway system. They have not waited the Internet to become technicians, managing multiple spatial information and developing their mobility strategies.

My interview was conducted in early 2009, freshly out of my stay at MIT SENSEable City Lab. It highlights some of the contributions I try to make in the domain of research in urban informatics. Some of my thoughts have evolved since, but the core reminds intact. This is a good opportunity to recap what I believe are my main contributions:

Research contributions
Information/Communication/Location technologies, rather than have not dissolved the city; space is still predominant with altered experience (see CatchBob!) and appropriation with practices, ecosystem of artifacts and cultures as driving factors of co-evolution (see Taxi drivers) .

Implicit engagement, with citizens acting as sensors (see Tracing the Visitor’s eye) generating data as sources of new types of urban indicators (see NYC Waterfalls) to evaluate urban strategies.

Research approaches
The necessity of hybrid researchers: “Autrement dit à ces chercheurs et lieux de recherche et d’étude qu’on pourra qualifier d’« hybrides », au sens où ils procèdent à partir de recherche action, sur la base de partenariats public/privé, en développant des méthodologies entre recherche fondamentale et appliquée, voire entre sciences et arts.” [...] “Ce serait un chercheur qui ne craint pas de côtoyer les différents mondes (académique, élus, entreprise…) ni de pratiquer les langages des différents parties prenantes“. (see on hybrid forums and the kind of research I am).

Communication beyond a certain community as an integral part of the research process: “Au-delà d’une ouverture sur les autres disciplines et pratiques professionnelles, le chercheur idéal se préoccupe aussi de la manière dont il communique le fruit de son travail auprès des gens ordinaires. Communiquer au-delà de la communauté scientifique devrait faire partie intégrante de la démarche du chercheur en technologies urbaines“. (see Below the Tip of the Urban Data Iceberg and for instance Les Audiences dans la Ville and L’MIT di Boston Digitalizza la Vita Dei Turista a Firenze).

Human as a focal point at the intersection of technologies and urban spaces: “Aussi curieux que cela puisse être, le contexte urbain est encore peu concerné par les pratiques de co-conception que l’on observe dans le secteur de l’informatique et du numérique. Pour ma part, je ne conçois pas d’imaginer des dispositifs sans analyse de ses usages et usagers Ces intersections de pratiques permettent de définir un nouvelle approche qui prend en compte l’Homme dans l’intégration des technologies dans l’espace urbain“. (see post-occupancy evaluations).

Feed from provocation for instance through design fiction and artist works: “Oui, tout à fait. Les artistes en particulier jouent un rôle majeur, en amont des recherches académiques.

Feed from urban scouting (see sliding friction)

Research methods
Mixed research and use of probes: “A objet d’études original, moyens spécifiques : nous allons jusqu’à concevoir nous-mêmes des outils particuliers, comme ces « mouchards » placés dans les téléphones pour collecter des données quantitatives qui supportent les observations sur le terrain“. (see CatchBob! and Flight detection)

Rapid prototyping to create potent provocative ideas and feed larger investigation: “Au sens du mot anglais « hack», qui veut dire « détourner », sous entendu pour trouver des portes auxquelles on ne pense pas, en n’hésitant pas à tester des solutions” (see Velib / Bicing).

Visualization as a starting point, not an end: “Bricoler, cela peut consister, par exemple, à mettre des données sur des cartes et noter des comportements émergents, pour établir des corrélations ou dégager une dynamique spatiotemporelle qui aide à une première compréhension des données. Elle ne parlera pas forcément au commun des mortels, mais au moins permettra-t-elle de nourrir l’imaginaire du chercheur, d’amorcer une discussion au sein de son équipe. Les réactions que cela suscite sont souvent instructives“. (see the World’s Eyes)

Why do I blog this: Gathering thoughts for upcoming essays and talks.

FING has been leading an active investigation in France, acting both as a think-tank and make-tank in the domain of digital cities. I am not aware of any initiatives at that scale in other countries. Chapeau! They investigate and consult beyond academia, relying on other observer of the digitization of urban, more of the hybrid researchers type. Indeed they are often as very capable to capture, treat the issues and communicate on the domain. For instance, marine biologist and entrepreneur Juan Freire offers a unique sensitivity translating the experience in his domain to the context of the city (see Urbanismo emergente, pro-común y tecnología).

The Opaque Smart Grid

Posted: January 3rd, 2010 | No Comments »

The recent fiasco of PG&E smart grid installation in California provides some valuable insights on the integration of real-time meters of urban activities and people’s appropriation of the information fed back to them. Indeed, one of the advantages of a smart grid is that the two way flow of information communicates home energy consumption information and in return allows utilities to alert customers to real-time electricity pricing (see ‘Smart meters’: some thoughts from a design point of view). Yet, it seems that this mechanism failed in Bakersfield, CA, residents complaining that meters are logging far more kilowatt hours than they believe they are using. It is potentially due to technical reasons and certainly for the lack of transparency in the design of the system.

First, there is a lag between the installation of smart meters and the deployment of the in-home network that provides value to the consumer. The lag is so great that that the consumer started to feel disenfranchised. Indeed, “currently there are no in-home energy management displays or dashboards accompanying the new smart meters. Customers have no way to know how much their energy usage is costing in real time and… the utility does have plans to install these in the future” (see PG&E smart meter problem a PR nightmare).

Then, the system does not communicate its new rules. If customers do not shift demand to off-peak times when rates are lower, as argued by PG&E (see PG&E smart meter communication failure – lessons for the rest of us), then it means that the system fails to communicate the value of shifting demand or the time when rates are lower.

Finally, the rolled-out system is opaque in communicating its state. As exemplified in this tweet the design does not integrate failures and user inquiries: “I’m waited for PG&E to put up the daily usage numbers, I won’t get those until next month for some unexplained reason“.

A near-future evolution of smart grids, in a perfect internet of things world, is that consumers can “set and forget” to constantly monitor anything. Appliance makers such as General Electric and Whirlpool are developing smart appliances capable of doing the monitoring on the behalf of their owners. At what level will this extra layer of automation disenfranchise or empower us? How will the practice of organizations controlling hard infrastructure integrate the specificities of soft infrastructures.

Why do I blog this: Fascinated by the fact the roll-out of “smart grid” system, meant to empower both energy consumers and producers, led to people feel disenfranchised. The organizations that have controlled hard infrastructure for decades have still a lot to learn from designing their newly, internet-of-things-powered soft infrastructures. More than communicating accurate data, they are requested to design and make their overall process (e.g. data collection and handling) more transparent. The Bakersfield fiasco is an example of the new frictions PG&E and the likes will learn from as their are getting closer to people, metering their consumption on an hourly basis and feeding them back information in real-time. What kind of friction will occur when a governmental institution gets similarly more deeply involved in soft infrastructures, such as vehicle tracking initiative in Holland?

An armless erroneous temperature reading