Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Proximity-based social networking


Proximity-based social networks, such as Foursquare, the now-retired Google Latitude and Facebook Places, were a promising vision back in 2009. But it's now 2013 and things have changed. As mentioned, Google and Facebook, retired their own takes on the theme, although both retained the check-in features within Google+ and as a tagging option in Facebook's status updates. 

So what has happened? Citing check-in fatigue and the obsolescence of the manual check-in because of ability to automatically obtain location data through a user's device, Natasha Lomas recently implored people to stop trying to make proximity-based social networking happen

According to Lomas 
Most people need to communicate at regular intervals — which is the driving force behind the rise and rise of mobile messaging apps. Far fewer people feel a similar imperative to regularly broadcast their location. Or tether their communications to a particular location. That’s got ‘niche use-case’ written all over it.
... Of course there’s still a hardcore of check-in junkies who use Foursquare, but there’s still a hardcore of Google fans who use Google+ (oh, and, Robert Scoble), just as there’s a core group of people who continue visiting the local library. The wider point here is that you don’t need to require users to manually check-in when you can grab their location data automatically, based on where a user’s cell phone or tablet is accessing your service. For those (pesky) users who block location spiders, there are still embedded options and frequent nagging to share where they are. But for the average ‘click yes to anything’ app user the emphasis has shifted to an assumption that location will be taken at the point of sign up.
Lomas astutely notes, that just because the check-in services are declining, it does not mean location-based services are also on the decline, as increasing amounts of location-based data is being collected automatically through mobile computing.

The proximity-based social network is rendered a niche product in the few circumstances where proximity rather than communication is the over-riding factor. Lomas cites Grindr, and, shpock - a local retail app, as examples of feasible proximity-based network products. She mentions Nokia's new Job Lens app, which in a combination of augmented reality and job hunting allows the user to find jobs relative to their location; and Apple's apps "Near Me" app implemented in iOS 7, as less useful products.

The rise of the mobile messaging apps and the decline of the proximity-based social network, suggests that for friendship it is communication not location that is the influential component. As Lomas notes,

The long and short of it is the most interesting kind of proximity is the digital proximity that allows people to keep in touch virtually without having to be co-located most of the time. Location is a feature of friendship, communication is the focus.

The people at Cisco, however think that despite it's tendency for niche products, proximity-based social networks can do a lot of good. According to Melissa Jun Rowley, the emerging proximity-based social networking market is expected to reach $1.9 billion in revenues by 2016. In her article on proximity-based social change, Jun Rowley, suggests that the opportunities for proximity services to spark social change are just beginning to unfold. Two examples are used to illustrate these potentials.

3M's Domestic Violence Proximity Notification System: Uses GPS, RF and cellular communication. Security layers are created around the victims, and proximity notification layers around the aggressors. The system tracks aggressors sends alerts to victims and law enforcers.

POS REP: A social network which facilitates reconnection and reintegration of military veterans. Founder, Anthony Allman, claims it was developed to respond to issues faced by veterans after the suicide of Purple Heart recipient and veteran advocate Clay Hunt. The service connects veterans to peers and services in their communities.

Jun Rowley sees these examples as evidence that proximity-based social networking can be used for social good and considers whether it could become a trend, claiming that:
As devices or "things" start to communicate with one another and develop their own intelligence more, what they'll be able to accomplish through proximity and beyond is going to change daily human behavior, as well as our notions about benefitting humanity through technology.
Source: http://newsroom.cisco.com

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wi-Fi access

Public Wi-Fi and its issues. Image source: The Guardian/Sipa Press/Rex Features

One of the problems that arises with issues such as wi-fi and the easier facilitation of internet access it affords is the disparity in access to such services and by extension, the content they provide. For low income earners, the cost of broadband internet is beyond their budget. However, a progressive initiative in Bury, Manchester, has attempted to address this issue by providing what is thought to be the UK's first free community wi-fi.

The partnership between Broad Oaks sports college, Bury council and Pennine Telecom, offers free wi-fi to low income families, and the network has now been extended to one square mile, providing the East Bury community with free internet. The scheme was originally initiated to help disadvantaged students at the school. The Guardian cites that in 2008, 40% of the schools population did not have broadband internet at home, and quotes the school deputy head, Chris Owen, as noting that these students were at a disadvantage, "They couldn't access the same learning resources that other students they were in competition with were accessing."

According to The Guardian
The network, simply named "Internet", requires no login, has no time limit and can support 400 users at a time. It is currently receiving 200 users daily, and can be accessed from mobile devices and tablets as well as desktop computers and laptops.
The community has welcomed the free internet, noting the cost saving benefits, its speed, and its multiple uses from studying and education, to job hunting, planning travel routes, and social media.

Also in the UK however,  recent research has indicated that more than half of free public Wi-Fi provide no filters to block adult content, allowing access to pornography, and websites that contain adult, weapons and drug related material. According to a recent article published in The Guardian,
The research examined 179 locations across Birmingham, Manchester and London, including cafes, restaurants, shops, hotels and public spaces, and found that 51% of free Wi-Fi hotspots allowed unfiltered access to adult content.  
One in three UK cafes and restaurants, for instance, have no filtering in place to protect children and prevent their access to pornography, while a further 20% failed to restrict customer access to online sex dating sites, such as AdultFriendFinder.com.
According to the vice-president of product strategy and business development at AdaptiveMobile, Graeme Coffey, the past years have seen two trends which has inadvertently enabled greater access to content that is inappropriate for minors, these being the increase in public Wi-Fi and increased access to Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices:
In the last two years there have been two convergent trends: a big increase in public wifi or ‘hospitality Wi-Fi’, and greater access to smartphones, gaming consoles and tablets with a wifi capability, the kind of device a child could have. 
Whilst hotels are predominantly private places, where a ‘no filtering’ policy may be appropriate, hotel lobbies, cafés and restaurants are more public and the content policy should reflect this. It is certainly neither a simple nor a ‘one size fits all’ matter.
The Guardian cites Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at the Plymouth Business School, as noting the importance of the need for filters in public space, “Having filters in public spaces is just as important as other restrictions such as the smoking ban and modesty covers on adult magazines...But simply having a filter doesn't necessarily mean everything is protected."

Of all the Wi-Fi spots in public spaces which were reviewed, it was public places such as train stations, and Government owned spaces, that had the highest amount of filters that blocked adult content.

Both these stories demonstrate the issues surrounding access to Wi-Fi and the complexities of its availibility in public spaces. On the one hand, we have an entire community provided with free Wi-Fi in an effort to bridge the inequality, and socio-economic divide that characterises the area. It benefits the community by allowing members greater access to educational resources and online services which were previously unavailable or at least very limited.

The other story reminds us that there are other issues that must be considered when discussing public Wi-Fi. The increasing number of Wi-Fi hotspots, paired with the rising numbers of Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices, combined with no consistent approach to filtering and content blockers, creates a situation where inappropriate content can be accessed by children and youth. Being in public space, this raises question about which publics are being considered, and suggests that the complexities of Wi-Fi and mobile device access, both good and bad need more attention.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Google has created a global near real-time augmented reality game, Ingress, which is played on Android devices.It is a great example of mobile gaming immersed in the player's surrounding environment and the outside world.
Image source: geek.com

In November 2012, a viral game, the Niantic Project, appeared. The project was touted as an Investigation Board filled with cryptic clues and secret codes. The story continues to evolve everyday with clues, secrets and game tech waiting to be found and unlocked. Players are encouraged to form alliances across neighbourhoods, cities and countries.The Niantic Project was revealed to be part of a larger Google project called Ingress, a real-time location-based mobile game which according to Geek.com seems:

to be taking the cues from augmented reality games, puzzle games, geocaching, and team-based online gameplay to make a futuristic game where your phone is the center of everything. Teams of players use live maps to hunt for portals, which show up on the game map to be hacked and captured. Outside of the localized mobile view, there’s a global view on desktops that show the whole team in action across the globe.

The game is invite-only and you can request to play at the games site http://www.ingress.com. The app plays out in the real world and according to Google:

Ingress transforms the real world into the landscape for a global game of mystery, intrigue, and competition.
Our future is at stake. And you must choose a side.
A mysterious energy has been unearthed by a team of scientists in Europe. The origin and purpose of this force is unknown, but some researchers believe it is influencing the way we think. We must control it or it will control us.
“The Enlightened” seek to embrace the power that this energy may bestow upon us.
“The Resistance” struggle to defend, and protect what’s left of our humanity.
Install Ingress and transform your world.
The World is the Game
Move through the real world using your Android device and the Ingress app to discover and tap sources of this mysterious energy. Acquire objects to aid in your quest, deploy tech to capture territory, and ally with other players to advance the cause of the Enlightened or the Resistance.
The struggle is being played out globally. Track the progress of players around the world, plan your next steps, and communicate with others using an Intelligence map.  

Earlier this year, Google teamed up with HINT water offering in-game codes invites under the bottle caps allowing the player to choose between the Enlightenment and the Resistance, the games two factions. This provides an alternative option to the current modes of obtaining codes, which is usually either the email reservation system which occasionally emails out invite codes, or by getting the attention of one of the community moderators. Once in the game you can take to the streets to complete the puzzles that offer additional in-game power-ups, or simply look under the caps of HINT water bottles. Then you can get back on the the streets and get playing! As long as you have both an Android phone and invite of course.

The following video summarizes the background to the Niantic Project and its progress through 2012:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

GPS Jamming

People wanting to stop GPS tracking of their movements are increasingly using devices that scramble tracking systems. "GPS jammers" can be plugged into car cigarette lighters to create a 500 meter zone around their car which interferes with the tracking systems.

GPS Jammer. Image source: www.foxnews.com

According to The Guardian, GPS tracking systems are used to detect stolen vehicles, monitor vehicle use and to stop drivers working overly long shifts. Using the jammers could also impact on plans to introduce pay as you drive insurance schemes or road toll systems. The Guardian cites Prof Charles Curry of Chronos Technology saying that,

"When people use these, it creates a bubble around their vehicle for about 500 metres that jams any GPS receiver or transmitter. ... It stops any tracking system the owner might have put on the car. Usually they will block GSM [mobile phone] signals too that might also be used to send back a location... It means that for anyone trying to track the vehicle, it just vanishes off the map – it's as though it were in an underground car park."

In the UK, it is not illegal to purchase, sell or possess the jammers. It is currently only an offence under the Wireless Telegraphy Act to "knowingly use" such a device to block GPS signals – though according to The Guardian the communications regulator Ofcom is looking to close some of the loopholes. But some see a danger beyond fatigued drivers however, citing the possibility of the devices affecting aircraft navigation systems, and interfering with the GPS systems of drivers in the immediate vicinity, wiping out their signals also.

The need to address the jamming of GPS devices, has also been reiterated by Brad Parkinson, the project leader of the team who originally created the global positioning system in the 1970s. Parkinson discusses the need for higher penalties for GPS jamming offenders and cited Australia's penalties as an appropriate model for other countries to adopt. He cites an incident where during testing at Newark airport of GPS technology for the blind landing of planes, researchers found that the signal would periodically get jammed at the same time each day. The cause was pinpointed to a truck driver who was trying to jam the GPS on his truck, but the reach of the device to interrupt with the airport signals suggests the potential seriousness of jamming.

In May 2012, the North Koreans used much more powerful jammers to scramble GPS signals near two of South Korea's major airports. The Russian built devices are claimed to be able to affect systems as far as 100km away.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has intercepted and destroyed nearly 100 illegal signal jammers that interfere with GPS and mobile devices. According to the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), the jammers were intercepted through the mail between November 2011 and June 2012.

The jammers are illegal in Australia and the possession or supply of the devices can be met with heavy fines and possible imprisonment of two years. Body corporate's can receive up to $225 000 for the offence, while causing interference to radio communications used by emergency services can attract a fine of up to $850 000 or a five year prison sentence.

The SMH states that the ACMA believes most jammers are typically used by those who want to stop mobile phone calls from being made or received in a certain vicinity.

"Others just use them to cause a nuisance. In one example several years ago, the regulator found an imam at a Western Sydney mosque using one during prayers to ensure there was silence. In another, a company installed one in its boardroom after getting advice from a security expert."

There has been a decrease in the number of jammers seized by authorities. According to Mark Loney, executive manager, ACMA's operations and services branch,

"My sense is that the rate of intercepts to the mail stream is falling," he said. "That could be a good sign and that there's less people buying them. Or it could mean that they are coming in and are not being picked up in the mail stream. We don't have perfect knowledge about this but the fact that we're seeing less is encouraging."

The NSW Department of Corrective Services is the only organisation approved within Australia to be granted an exemption. They are currently trialing the jammers at Lithgow jail after an inmate smuggled in a mobile phone with which to control drug operations on the outside.

Jamming GPS becomes problematic when the amount of infrastructure and systems that rely on global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) for deriving position, navigation and timing data (PNT), of which GPS is the most widely used, are considered. The services to which the technology is applied ranges from car navigation, data networks, financial systems, shipping and air transport systems, agriculture, railways, emergency services, and safety of life applications. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), many of these systems have GPS as a shared dependency, so a loss of signal could cause the simultaneous failure of many services that are probably expected to be independent of each other.

Furthermore, our reliance on GPS systems continues often without a non-GNSS back-up, or inadequate back-up if contingency plans have been put in place. Therefore, any disruption to the signal can result in a range of consequences dependent on the application. The RAE notes that,

disruptive interference can occur unintentionally and, worse still, deliberate interference is a real and growing possibility. As opportunities arise for criminals to make money, avoid costs or avoid detection, it is known that significant effort will be directed towards attacking GNSS based systems. The banking infrastructure has already seen such an increase in high-tech attacks and now devotes considerable time and expense to countermeasures. Potential and already known mechanisms for deliberate interference include: 
• Jamming GNSS based vehicle tracking devices to prevent a supervisor’s knowledge of a driver’s movements, or avoiding road user charging.
• Rebroadcasting (‘meaconing’) a GNSS signal maliciously, accidentally or to improve reception but causing misreporting of a position.
• Spoofing GNSS signals to create a controllable misreporting of position, for example to deceive tracking devices.
As the use of GNSS for revenue raising purposes increases through road user charging or vehicle tracking, the prevalence of cheap jamming devices will increase. Because the signal received at ground level from the GNSS satellites is weak – it may be as low as -160dBW (1 x 10–16W) – jamming over a small area is easily achieved and it is known that dedicated kit is already readily available for purchase over the internet even though use of that equipment in the UK is illegal. In the United States, monitoring for GPS signal anomalies is routine and the occurrence of jamming incidents, both deliberate and accidental is growing. In the UK, the Technology Strategy Board is supporting a project to establish a service to verify the extent to which GNSS signals can be trusted by users.
Fox News also recently reported on research at the University of Texas which demonstrated the vulnerability of the GPS system. Using a laptop, a small antenna and an electronic GPS “spoofer” built for $3,000, GPS expert Todd Humphreys and his team were able to gain control of a sophisticated navigation system on board a super yacht involved in the research. The team were able to use counterfeit radio signals to steer the vessel and take it off course, while on board, the ship's GPS system indicated the ship was still on course. The research team suggested that such GPS "spoofing" could cause major havoc in maritime contexts and could be also used to interfere with the systems on commercial aircraft. This has obvious implications for security considering the system's vulnerability to be hacked.

Responding to this requires both awareness and policy changes to increase resilience and robustness of GNSS systems. Australian company, Locata has invented what they claim to be the World's first local GPS system, "Locatalite", which "plugs" holes in GPS and offers independent positions, navigation and time capability as well as local back-up for GPS.  The RAE offers a series of recommendations to address the GNSS resilience issues and suggests,
The provision of a widely available PNT service as an alternative to GNSS is an essential part of the national infrastructure. It should be cost effective to incorporate in civil GNSS receivers and free to use. Ideally it should provide additional benefits, such as availability inside buildings and in GNSS blindspots.
These solutions address the infrastructure and technological side of GPS disruption, but perhaps responses should also be directed to understanding the reasons for why people use jammers. Criminal reason's aside, there are issues of increasing surveillance of worker's and the associated discomfort and mistrust encouraged by such tracking; also the need for engaging in activities without the interference of mobile phones, such as in cinemas, and as noted in the Sydney mosque example. Perhaps in these circumstances, focus should not be solely on technological solutions but on social solutions too, and working towards resolving the issues which entice people to use the jammers. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In Google We Trust

Technologically connected but where does our data go? Image source: ABC Four Corners

The ABC current affairs program, Four Corners, recently broadcast an episode that looked at life in the digital age, In Google We Trust. The episode followed the a day in the life of your "average" Australian family, looking at how the everyday technologies they use, create a profile of their movements interests, likes, communications and the extent of the data networks that this information travels through. The program also discusses the opportunities for surveillance, tracking and the general erosion of privacy that these technologies enable, often without much public awareness of these intrusions. Many of these are known to us and our readers here at The Politics of Location, some which will be reiterated in today's post, along with a few examples which are new to us.

The first member of the family to be the focus of the camera's attention is their teenage daughter, Christina. She likes to visit sites such as YouTube, tumblr and instagram to keep up to date with what people and celebrities are doing. She also likes Selena Gomez. Of course, the use of these sites raises the question of privacy agreements required for using such services and whether or not the majority of people read them, and if they do, whether they actually understand them. The answer is a resounding "No". No surprises there. According to Alistair MacGibbon, from the Center for Internet Safety, and former federal police officer:
Even if there are 156 pages of terms and conditions very conveniently though that checkbox is on page one, and I suspect that the majority of Australians have never read a privacy policy and if they had, they probably couldn't understand it.
Furthermore, he notes that people should not be lapsed into a false sense of security based on the familiarity of the environment from which they're accessing the net:
If we think that we're in our lounge room or bedroom engaging in the internet, that it's just us - there're an awful lot of people looking over your shoulder.
This means, that even before Christina starts her school day, her online activity and the data that generates is already travelling internationally and being tracked, providing advertisers with information to directly target marketing to her.  This doesn't really bother Christina because she believes she there is no sensitive information that can be gathered from her internet use and she isn't using her accounts to do anything secret, although one might be doubtful if liking Selena Gomez is something you want shared. But that doesn't particularly seem to bother a twelve year old. The basic message here though is that privacy agreements are often unclear and convoluted, deterring users from perusing and comprehending them fully. Thus people sign up without being fully aware what data is being collected and how it will be used. The data creates a digital profile of the user and companies frequently use this data for targeted advertising. They know a lot about you.

Next up is teenage son Alexi, who is the highest app user in the family. On the topic of apps, Troy Hunt, Internet Security Officer, is quick to point out that apps essentially do what your internet browser does, and again makes your online activity trackable and able to be intercepted. Alexi's apps are scrutinised by Hunt and he finds that some of the apps that users would consider as trustworthy actually have some major security problems, the example here being the app of the NRL team, the Sydney Roosters. Their protocol wasn't encrypted which meant that personal information and credit card data entered into the site would be available to anybody observing the connection. The Sydney Roosters have since fixed this problem.

The problem with apps, according to Hunt, is that they often operate on user trust:

So that's a real problem with this app and it's unfortunate when you're sitting at a PC and you're doing your banking or you're doing your shopping, you get a little padlock icon and you can sort of look for that, and you get some sort of confidence in the security of the website. But you don't get that in an app, so all you know with an app is that these guys are saying, hey trust me with your credit card details - so that one basically has not even an attempt at securing your credentials.

Reporter, Geoff Thompson, next turns his attention to the father, Jim, a financial planner who travels to work by motorbike. Etags are mentioned in passing as a trade off between convenient automatic billing and the road authorities knowing when he uses the tolls. What is news to Jim, and also to us here at this blog, is that NSW Roads and Maritime Services is downloading information on his mobile phone by scanning its Bluetooth signal as he passes particular streetlights. This obviously raises concerns about what data is being stored and whether it is de-identified, as Hunt notes:

It's a question of what they're actually capturing and saving, I mean the concern that I would have is are they tracking identifiable information about individuals, because if they're tracking identifiable information and they're doing it at multiple points, then they're tracking everything from your personal movements, to the average speed that you could be carrying, that would be a bit of a concern to me, it's a question though of whether it's de-identified or not.

The Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) is collecting the Media Access Control (MAC) addresses of mobile phones at 16 sets of traffic lights in inner Sydney. MAC addresses are unique identifiers of mobile phones and similar devices (we talked about their use in so-called 'Spy Bins' in London here). They are not considered as personal information by Australian privacy laws because the phone's owner is not easily identified by the address. This however doesn't mean its not invading privacy or doesn't have the potential to. As Hunt cautions,
this might be one of those cases where you want to get a definition of personal information, is a unique device address personal information? You know, maybe it is not, but it does still track an individual's movements, ah so whether or not they admit to actually tracking it, the capability is there.
The RMS issued a statement in response to the Four Corner's inquiries claiming that,

The devices receive the Bluetooth MAC address but no other identifying information is captured. MAC addresses are anonymous data.
The signals provide RMS with data to show the number of vehicles passing through intersections at particular times which then helps RMS monitor traffic flows. Unlike other devices with measure traffic volumes, this method allows RMS to measure traffic flow and provide information on trip and exit times to customers.

Despite this Four Corners uses examples of technologies which ended up having impacts beyond what was initially intended.San Francisco's toll tag, is one such example, for despite being introduced only with the intention for automatic billing, it eventually had impact on divorce proceedings. The movements of spouses became important information, and the courts acted to subpoena such information from the tags.

The fact that Jim drives to work also brings up the issue of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (APNR) technology which takes photographs of number plates and identifies any "problem" vehicles. Introduced in late 2009, the technology is now installed on 280 police cars across NSW. The cameras take six photos a second and these photos are stored on a data base for approximately five years. But the scanners don't discriminate on which vehicles they photograph. All number plates in view are targeted whether they are doing something illegal or not. According to Four Corners, since 2009 the NSW police force has captured and stored more than 208,799,000 number plates. However, the police are reluctant to explain how exactly they use this data, noting that there are strict protocols for accessing and retrieving the stored information and that none of it is personal, while offering a general statement that:
"The information collected by the ANPR units - car photo, registration plate number ... and where and when the photo was taken - is stored in a separate data base for about five years."
However, as the episode notes, this is essentially a database of where you've been and when for the past for years. Hunt believes we have reason to question the innocuousness of the technology:
Without any confirmation to the contrary, and I can understand why they'd want to be cagey about something like this, that's really the only conclusion you can draw right? Because we know that the data's being collected, we know we have the technology to match a numberplate in one location to a numberplate in another location, I mean this is, this is very basic stuff. So you have to draw the conclusion that that yes they, you know, this is all getting put together at some point.
This clearly shows the potential for metadata to be stored and used to link people and events over a period of years. This potential is voiced by the Australian Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, who notes that:
Metadata can tell quite a lot about a person's activity in terms of the times they're transmitting and who they're transmitting data to or having communications with, certainly it can provide quite a lot of information.
And there are more than 300 000 metadata requests made each year.

However, it is not just internet data, apps, number plates, etags, and mobile phones that are surrendering our data. Thompson, now turns to the mother of the family, Helen, who is heading out to do the grocery shopping. This of course brings up Coles "Flybuys" and Woolworths "Everyday Rewards".

Rob Scott, Finance Director for Coles, claims that the FlyBuys system is an extension of what retailers have been doing for years, in getting to know the customer, what products they need and like, and then tailoriing their services and stock to the customer. As Alastair MacGibbon notes, "loyalty cards and rewards programs are about collecting information about you. Again, it's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, so long as you go into it with your eyes wide open."

It is noted that Woolworth's has bought a 50% share in data analysis company, Quantium, giving Woolworth's access not only to the data of its own clients, but many of Quantium's other clients. This provides Woolworth's with a greater understanding of the buying habits of its own and other customers. Although the data that both companies share supposedly is de-identified, such data is still incredibly valuable in showing customer habits more broadly, which helps businesses to further tailor their products and services to the customer's wants.

Back at home, Helen opens up her yahoo account. Doing so means that her data is re-routed through computer servers in the United States and which of course, as the whistle blowing revelations on the National Security Agency earlier this year showed, makes Helen's data subject to interception by foreign intelligence agencies, something she is not comfortable with. While some "If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have to worry" rhetoric is rolled out, Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that,

US citizens have, at least in theory, some constitutional rights that protect their data from access by the US government. Those rights don't extend to non-US persons, which means that Australian's data, when it's kept in the United States, has no real legal protection from the government...It gets worse because, not only is there no good legal protections from the US government, 'cause the US government shares its intelligence and research with the rest of the world, including potentially the Australian government. So you have this incredible trade off where the Australian legal system has good protections to prevent data just ending up in the hands of the Australian law enforcement, without you know a good warrant or a judicial process. But that doesn't stop the US from handing data on Australian citizens straight over to those same parties without any of those legal safeguards.

With the potential surveillance and data gathering opportunities in the domestic sphere discussed, the episode moves onto the final member of the Pappas family yet to be addressed, eldest daughter, Katerina. Meeting a friend at Westfield, Bondi Junction, Katerina's movements are monitored by CCTV but also have the potential to be tracked by the shopping center using her mobile phone. Four Corners notes that Westfield's privacy policy claims that,
"...where devices are able to connect to, or are identifiable by, in-centre infrastructure, we may collect data including usage, location and type of device"
Although Westfield states that they are currently not tracking customers via mobile phones despite having the technology installed in three Australian sites. The importance placed on such technologies is demonstrated by the creation of Westfield Labs, a division of Westfield based in San Francisco, which is tasked with developing and perfecting ways to collect data on customers. Another company, RetailNext, has already developed their own version of in-store tracking, something we discussed in a previous blog post. Katerina, understandably is not comfortable with the idea of tracking her movements through the shopping center by wi-fi, suggesting for an opt in, opt out policy.

The Future of Retail. Image Source: Westfield Labs

But it is not quite safe to leave Westfield without another privacy hazard! According to Four Corners, Westfield parking station trialed technology to help shopper locate their cars. This required photographing and uploading the images of every parked car. Hunt, however, had found a security flaw which has now been addressed. It had been possible to obtain more information than the four possible car matches that the product had intended. According to Hunt, anybody with an internet connection could access information on which cars were in the shopping center and when:
And they would get a list of every vehicle that was currently in the car park and then they could repeat it every sixty seconds, every five minutes, whenever they wanted to, so you would get a profile of who's coming and going and how long they're staying.
The episode concludes back at the Pappas' s house, where the complexity of digital assets ownership, particularly after death and the idea of people's data outliving them, is discussed. The relative "newness" of this issue is noted, along with the need to find ways to deal with this, answers to which are far from complete.

That distinguishing between our physical and digital identity is becoming increasingly difficult is remarked upon by Thompson, and the episode has reflected the increasing intertwining of the two through our everyday lives, often through processes of which we are not aware, or only partly so. Our data footprints reveal a considerable amount of detail about ourselves, even if the data is de-identified or not, and it is increasingly salient to develop ways to manage this data in a way that finds a balance with privacy, regardless of whether some commentators have already touted the death of privacy.

It suggests the increasing blurring of the boundaries between public and private places and selves. Many see their mobile phone as a personal and private device, but clearly as this report has showed, the information contained on them can be obtained in public spaces, such as with the MAC address gathering, and without clear explanation of why, or what is used for. This also denotes a disparity between people's perceptions of what is private and what law or government define as personal information, based on ideas of de-identified information, which need to be re-assessed. Because the collection, storing and access to big data raises a multitude of issues concerning privacy, security, policing, government and power, as well as the potential to abuse that power. As O'Brien comments,
I don't think any social system, any government, can survive knowing everything about its citizens without ultimately that being corrupted. I mean I wouldn't be able to take that power. I don't think anyone would want or to take that power, um. But once you've got it, you're gonna find a use for it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Spy bins and passive Wi-Fi monitoring

A spy bin in London. Image source: Mona Boshnaq/AFP/Getty Images
The humble litter bin has now become a high tech device with the ability to track people's movements. The Renew ad firm has installed technology that is able to measure Wi-Fi signals in rubbish bins around London's Square Mile. According to The Guardian the advertising firm has suggested that it,
would apply the concept of "cookies" – tracking files that follow internet users across the web – to the physical world.
Renew's chief executive Kaveh Memari, it quoted as saying, "We will cookie the street."

The spy bin's ability to capture the serial numbers of smartphones and analyse signal strength in order to track people's movement's along the street, have not been without controversy and has resulted in the City of London Corporation demanding Renew to withdraw the program.

The data captured from these devices could have potential uses for advertising. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald, suggests that if it enabled companies to see how long people spent in particular locations each day, commercials could be targeted towards individuals:
But if a company could see that a certain smartphone user spent 20 minutes in a McDonald's every day, it could approach Burger King about airing an ad on the bin's video display whenever that user walks by at lunchtime. Or it could target its commercials in real time by distinguishing between people who work in the area and visiting tourists.
Such surveillance has drawn comparisons with the 2002 film Minority Report and raises important questions about privacy as well as public awareness of the extent to which their movements are being watched. The City of London Coporation, who according to The Guardian, only discovered the use of the spy bins via the press, released a statement noting that "Anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public".

The spy bins are being investigated by Britain's data protection watchdog, while the privacy advocate group Big Brother Watch, is urging that questions should be asked  "about how such a blatant attack on people's privacy was able to occur".

Renew chief executive, Memari, released a statement in response to the media interest which he described as being a bit breathless, and commenting on the future potentials of the spy bins:
"A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now."

But Wi-Fi tracking of smartphone users is not just restricted to rubbish bins. The Economist reported that American fashion retailer, Nordstrom trialed a system that tracked smartphone users as they moved through its stores or walked nearby. The firm did post a public notice about the system, and withdrew the program when it was covered by a Dallas-based television channel. The New York Times was next to take up the story prompting a privacy debate around passive monitoring.

Nordstrom, and several other companies used a system provided by Euclid Analytics, which can track precise movements of phones without having to connect to Wi-Fi networks. According to The Economist,

The technique takes advantage of the fact that Wi-Fi wireless networking protocols are "promiscuous": the Wi-Fi adaptors in laptops, phones and base-stations reveal a lot of information about those devices as they attempt to negotiate connections with other devices nearby. Even before a device hooks onto a Wi-Fi a network, it continuously spews identifying information, including a unique, factory-set identifier, over the air. Most devices send "probe requests" akin to a town crier shouting out the names of networks which the device has previously connected to, so that a nearby base-station that matches any of these requests can respond. The requests run unremittingly across all available frequencies until a connection is made. Even devices that are seemingly turned off, such as sleeping laptops, send out such probes, though at a slower rate. Place several Wi-Fi base-stations in a shop, then, and you can pick up these probe requests, extract the device IDs, trilaterate the positions of the devices sending them, and thus track the movements of individual shoppers, seeing which racks or displays they stop at, and what paths they follow through the store.

The Economist notes that this is just the next step in the evolution of "retail science", which analyses the movements of shoppers and assists retailers in determining where to best place products and displays. While this used be done by video, Wi-Fi allows more accurate tracking. This concerns privacy advocates because despite, signs notifying them of the tracking, the increasing strength of Wi-Fi means that passers by can also be detected. They also note the possibility that monitoring systems could collect the list of known networks on an individual phone and use it to find out further details including place of work or residence about the phone user, from which individual identities can be plausibly be deducted.

After the New York Times article, Euclid and other firms announced they had joined forces with the Future of Privacy Forum, to create a group focused on developing best practices for retail location analytic's companies. Commenting on the new group, Euclid co-founder and CEO, Will Smith, noted, 

“New technologies are helping retailers better understand what customers want and make shopping more convenient for everyone ... Privacy has always been a priority as we’ve designed and built our services, and we are excited to work with FPF to develop best practices for the retail analytics industry.”
Monitoring smartphone user's location via Wi-Fi may help advertisers and retailers but issues of privacy invasion via these systems must be addressed. And this goes beyond purely location to the data that can be extrapolated from movement patterns. Bradley Voytek, a neuroscientist quoted in The New York Times article notes, “The creepy thing isn’t the privacy violation, it’s how much they can infer.”

The following video explains why and how bricks and mortar shops are using Wi-Fi tracking to monitor customers activity in order to keep pace with online vendors.

Future of Privacy Forum director, Jules Polonetsky maintains that,

“Companies need to ensure they have data protection standards in place to de-identify data, to provide consumers with effective choices to not be tracked and to explain to consumers the purposes for which data is being used ... By being transparent about what is going on, location companies and retailers can make sure shoppers understand the benefit of the bargain."

And considering the spy bin incident, this applies just as much to Wi-Fi monitoring on the street as it does inside retails stores.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wearable computing beyond Google Glass...

While Google Glass is receiving lots of attention at the moment, they're not the only ones in on the wearable computing gig.

Italian company GlassUp has just listed their own wearable computing project on a crowdfunding site in order to raise the $150 000 necessary to complete the project.

Maker, Gianluigi Tregnaghi claims it was already working on the GlassUp project two years ago, well before Google announced its own glass. There are differences between the two Augmented Reality glasses. GlassUp is considerably cheaper, at $US399 ($A432) compared to Google Glass' $US1500 ($A1625) price, and does not have as many features. It is described as a "receive only" device which means that unlike Google Glass, customers are not able to respond to email, text or take photos. The display screen is also directly in front of the eye rather than up to the side on Google's version.

According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald and Mashable, the information in the smartphone is sent to the glasses via Bluetooth. The notifications are displayed on GlassUp's lenses, projected in front of the user. Similar to Google Glass, the notifications are based on which apps the user downloads. 

The company has already been receiving trademark attention from Google who, GlassUp claims, has requested they change the product name.

Meanwhile in Australia, Sydney-based company Explore Engage has been developing wearable computing. For the past two years, the company has devoted $2 million to creating prototype smart glasses. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the company is positioning its glasses as a challenger to Google's version. Explore Engage's chief technology officer, Paul Kouppas notes that certain things aren't possible on Google Glass because they are monocular and not directly augmenting your line of sight. Explore Engage however is augmenting both lenses directly in the user's field of view which means they can put content right in front of your vision.

Explore Engage's Augmented Reality Glasses. Image source: The Sydney Morning Herald

The company is working up navigation, education, tourism, real-time translation, home entertainment, gaming, medical and sports-event glasses apps. The team wants to next work on apps for the glasses which include a CPR instructions overlay with voice prompts for what to do in an emergency, and, a cycling "heads up display" which provides route and safety information, navigation and communication between riders. In a departure from Google's mass market ambitions, Explore Engage says its niche product is, 
"more about particular use cases and bespoke design first, and mass marketing second...You could do a bit of a mashup between something like Second Life and a game like Doom, and allow them to co-exist in the real world."

Kouppas demonstrated the glasses on Cybershack:

So despite the attention currently being give to Glass, there are other contenders in the wearable computing game offering versions tailored to the contexts in which they see the possibilities for augmented reality most relevant. If you're keen on wearing AR glasses, it appears that once these models have been developed there will be increasing choice, making it easier to find a glass that suits you.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Google Glass and Mobile First-Person Journalism

There has been a lot of discussion around the usefulness and appropriateness of Google Glass. While many of the suggested uses focus on its Augmented Reality attributes and new ways of seeing the world, The Guardian recently reported on a more grounded and noteworthy use - that of "mobile first-person" journalism.

Tim Pool, is taking advantage the particular qualities of our smart devices for "mobile first-person journalism". Smartphones, live streaming apps, 3G, and affordable drones, offer an opportunity for the journalism endeavors of both professional journalists and ordinary citizens to stream events captured on their phones and other devices, that give them access to images and events that may otherwise be beyond the reach of traditional journalism. For example, people actually living through political instability, or involved in the protests can film events as they're happening and stream or post them without the censorship sometimes experienced by the media. For example, Pool himself, turned a commercially available remote controlled drone into "Occucopter" which flew over Occupy protests and streamed live footage via smartphone to the world. This was particularly useful when police were trying to keep journalists away during the police removal of protesters from Zuccotti Park during Occupy.

More recently however, Pool has been using Google Glass to cover protests in Istanbul. As a "Glass Explorer", Pool has had the opportunity to trial Glass and has found it is particularly useful for live streaming protests:

"When there's a wall of police firing plastic bullets at you, and you're running through a wall of tear-gas, having your hands free to cover your face, while saying 'OK Glass, record a video', makes that recording process a lot… easier," says Pool. 
"As soon as I saw Google Glass, I realised that it would allow me to do what I always do with this first-person live recording, but my hands would be free... I don't want to stand filming in front of the water cannon and guys with Molotovs. I want to show you what it's like to be there as best I can, even if that ends with me running full-speed into a cafe and rubbing lemons all over my face after being tear-gassed."
"There's no one standing in front of you: you're looking through a window at this event. And with social media, people can chat with me while I'm broadcasting, and chat to one another, which is just as powerful."

Pool has been working for Vice covering the protests in Istanbul, Cairo and Brazil during 2013 but has been doing this style of journalism since Occupy Wall Street in 2011.  Rather than seeing it replacing traditional journalism, he sees it as complementary, and his coverage has also been broadcast by major media networks. However data connection is a major issue with mobile journalism particularly when livestreaming. To accommodate this Pool takes multiple SIM cards enabling him to switch networks if they drop out. But even without livestream video, mobile-first journalism can provide useful commentary. He notes a recent example where a teenage girl's tweeting of a shooting in shopping mall in Wisconsin, became the primary source of information for journalists.

But Glass is proving particularly apt for "mobile first-person journalism" or "citizen journalism". A clip was recently posted on YouTube of "The First Fight and Arrest Caught on Glass", and while the majority of what is on film is a crowd of people, and a pretty uneventful arrest, the clip demonstrates the potentials - both good and privacy encroaching - that Glass can offer.

On the upside, it can encourage "citizen journalism", and  in cases as the fight above you can easily see its uses as evidence or if there had been police misconduct. It could also capture less serious and more entertaining events. In this sense it is not much different from the filming capabilities of a mobile phone, except that it is less obvious and hands-free which makes it easier to use. On the downside are the obvious privacy and surveillance concerns. As Stop the Cyborgs note, 

Notice the long tracking shots. Also notice that no one notices. Now imagine 10% of the population doing this all the time, walking in and out of buildings and homes. Imagine all this data being time stamped and geotagged, flowing to a large database in the cloud. A omniscient eye; a real time streetview extending into homes and businesses; society as a glass prism.

The ability for Glass to take surveillance to an even more creepy level is obvious. But Stop the Cyborg's also raise the question in relation to "citizen journalism", whether Glass will actually transform what events we see:

While undoubtedly it is true that more news footage will be captured by amateurs, this does not mean that citizens will become investigative journalists exposing systematic issues. Rather citizens will become crowd sourced paparazzi and informers. They will of course expose celebs. They will catch the occasional crime or even Rodney King style police abuse not just humorous incidents. However this will still be embedded within the dominant dispositif. They will contribute images to be judged by the existing legal, economic and media apparatus rather than challenging it. This is not the activist journalism of Indymedia, secret revelations of ‘Spies For Peace‘ and Wikileaks, or the muck raking investigation of Private Eye but rather the crowd sourced submission of America’s Funniest Home Videos or World’s Dumbest criminals. Video is typically something which reveals human actions rather than systematic organizational issues. The normalizing gaze is extended and reproduced not fundamentally challenged by placing cameras on people’s heads.

Thus while Glass may give us tools to see the world in a new way, what we choose to see is not always determined by the technology, but by us. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hello Lamp Post

Hello Lamp Post is a project that combines gaming, mobile phones and smart cities through the notion of playful cities. The creation of PAN studio it is the winner of the Bristol's Watershed arts venue's Playable City Award.

According to a recent article in The Guardian the project encourages people to communicate with street furniture including bus stops, post boxes and lamp posts by using the repair numbers found on the objects as SMS codes. Texting this number to a central server "wakes up" the object, and prompts questions via text. The next participant who encounters that object can learn about the previous replies. It is hoped that this will encourage regular conversations with the objects allowing people to learn stories about the hidden lives of the city's population, effectively enabling people to interact with the urban environment in more game-like ways.

PAN co-founder Ben Barker describes how the team devised the project:
The team spent the early months of the project thinking about memory and city, and how we build our own psychogeographies of familiar environments. "Personally I was inspired by Austerlitz, a novel by Seabald in which the city was a walkable version of the protagonists brain. We became obsessed with how we put these memories back in the real world, how do we unite the physicality of the city and the stories we tell about it?
"In all our conversations we were keen to avoid making an application that would limit who could play. Using SMS and the codes on objects we could avoid GPS and make it accessible to all. By making it open to everyone, all players needed was an interest in the stories of others."
For co-developer, Tom Armitage, the project is a way of reclaiming the term "Smart Cities" from major corporations such as IBM and Cisco which increases the reliance on their infrastructure and their idea of the smart city.
"It's exciting to see lots of great thought going on around alternate versions of the Smart City," says Armitage. "And it's thought that really focuses on all the other elements that make up a city - not just its technology. Dan Hill, CEO of Fabrica (and formerly Arup and Sitra) has a great recent blogpost on this. The work of New York-based designer Adam Greenfield also explores designing not only for networked cities, but also network citizens.
"There's a long tradition of technology reshaping the city by harnessing its citizens – services like Foursquare or Dodgeball, games like MogiMogi, even cycle hire platforms like Vélib. These all alter and improve the city through technology and people. We're taking some of that DNA and then investing the city with some personality."

The team hopes that by facilitating a different type of interaction with the objects in the city, and a game that does more than require task completion and points accumulation, that users might be able to change their perspective on the city and urban environment.

Google Glass and AR eyewear

There has been much talk and interest in AR eye-wear since Google announced its "Glass" last year. Wearable augmented reality technology has been around for a while now, developed for uses for example in the military, but the Google name-tag and big plans to make it part of our everyday life, has raised its profile high in our consciousness.


There have been mixed reviews for those who have had access to the product and been able to trial it. In this post we will look at one review that praises the technology and one which is more skeptical. For those who are unfamiliar with the glass and what it does, you check out the minimalist glass site or watch the official video:

But back to our reviews. First up is a review that is enthusiastic of Google Glass and its possibilities. This is followed by an account of the glass which is a little more tempered in its opinion of the product's potentials. The reviewers we draw upon are tech bloggers Robert Scoble of "Rackspace" and http://scobleizer.com, and Mike Butcher. Butcher is also a journalist and the editor for the European TechCrunch. Of course these are just two opinions among the plethora of posts and reviews of Google Glass out there so if you want more, feel free to go forth and find them.

Robert Scoble

Scoble's review is pro Google Glass. In fact Scoble declares the glass so significant that it's life changing. Here are some excerpts from Scoble's review. The full review can be found here.

1. I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor). It's that significant.
2. The success of this totally depends on price. Each audience I asked at the end of my presentations "who would buy this?" As the price got down to $200 literally every hand went up. At $500 a few hands went up. This was consistent, whether talking with students, or more mainstream, older audiences.
3. Nearly everyone had an emotional outburst of "wow" or "amazing" or "that's crazy" or "stunning."
4. At NextWeb 50 people surrounded me and wouldn't let me leave until they had a chance at trying them. I haven't seen that kind of product angst at a conference for a while. This happened to me all week long, it is just crazy.
5. Most of the privacy concerns I had before coming to Germany just didn't show up. I was shocked by how few negative reactions I got (only one, where an audience member said he wouldn't talk to me with them on). Funny, someone asked me to try them in a bathroom (I had them aimed up at that time and refused).
6. There is a total generational gap that I found. The older people said they would use them, probably, but were far more skeptical, or, at minimum, less passionate about the fact that these are the future, than the 13-21-year-olds I met.

Also, Google is forbidding advertising in apps. This is a HUGE shift for Google's business model. I believe Larry Page is moving Google from an advertising-based company to a commerce based company.

I continue to be amazed with the camera. It totally changes photography and video. Why? I can capture moments. I counted how many seconds it takes to get my smartphone out of my pocket, open it up, find the camera app, wait for it to load, and then take a photo. Six to 12 seconds. With Google Glass? Less than one second. Every time. And I can use it without having hands free, like if I'm carrying groceries in from the car and my kids are doing something cute.

This has changed my life. I will never live a day without it on. It is that significant.

Glowing reviews from Mr Scoble then. But to balance the reviews we'll now look at Mike Butcher's not quite so enthusiastic review.

Mike Butcher

In a nutshell, Butcher claims that using Google Glass is well, just weird. He poetically describes the technology as "this era’s Segway: hyped as a game changer but ultimately used by warehouse workers and mall cops." The full review can be found here but here are some of the main points of Butcher's critique:
"Next up is using your voice to do various commands like “Take a picture.” If you have someone standing in front of you, this is extremely odd. Suddenly they are cut out of the conversation and you’re talking to the Glass. This is very unlike being able to check something on your smartphone while you are chatting casually to someone. The latter feels quite normal, but performing similar operations while wearing Google Glass would seem downright rude in front of someone.
Ultimately this suggests to me that Google Glass will be incapable of being used socially. Okay, people in the tech world may use it socially and wander around with them on at conferences Googling each other. But it’s my belief that ‘normal’ people will not.

In part this was suggested by Andrew Keen onstage at The Next Web conference in Amsterdam. His point is that there is “no permission” given when the person in front of you is brandishing Google Glass. He’s right, and I can see most people asking the person to remove their Glass before conducting a civil conversation. You just don’t see that happening when two people with smartphones start talking.

Where I can see Google Glass working is in activities where you require both hands to be free. Skiing down a mountain filming, using the Glass like you would a GoPro camera, for instance. And in industrial applications – building and manufacturing, yes, I can see this would work very well: “Show House Plans” for instance, would be a great command for a building app. And you can see the police suddenly thinking of a few useful applications."

So while Butcher thinks the technology will have some beneficial uses, he believes it is not going to seamlessly integrate into day to day life for the majority of people. Butcher also raises a good point concerning privacy. If it is so easy to take pictures, recordings, and collect data using the glass as Scoble suggests, then what right do wearer's have to subject others to the lens of their glasses, could wearers breach privacy by surreptitiously recording others, and what information about individuals can be accessed by wearers. In the end who has the right? Google glass wearers or non-wearers. For those who are keen to sport the new eye-wear, it might be a good idea to employ Google Glass etiquette. Google has recently released official advice on appropriate behaviour while wearing the smartglasses and to help wearer's avoid becoming "Glassholes".

Of course there are those who question the need to have all this information available at eye-level all the time. The UK newspaper, The Guardian, produced a brilliant spoof of Google Glass with their Guardian Goggles, for April Fools Day this year. You can watch the clip here.

Perhaps the Guardian Goggle's slogan hits the mark when it comes to such technologies "Guardian Goggles: because life's too short to think for yourself"

More seriously, Charles Arthur, technology editor for The Guardian recently reviewed Google Glass, discussing its potentials, shortcomings, possible impact on social interaction and privacy concerns:

Smart Cities are about people too

With all this talk about smart cities it is easy to forget that the future of cities is as much about people as it is about technologies. This is something Anthony Townsend addresses in his keynote speech at 2012 Code for America which critiques "smart cities" and observes the limited engagement with citizens in smart city rhetoric.

There is an increasing amount of interest in and claims to Smart Cities both by city governments and companies looking to provide their version of smart city intelligence to cities each seeking to promote their brand of city smarts. IBM and Cisco are such companies.

IBM Smart Cities

Operates on the basis that a city is made up of infrastructure, operations and people working as an interconnected system of systems. According to IBM a Smart City drives sustainable economic growth and prosperity. Cities are data driven and leaders can analyse data to make better decisions, anticipate problems and coordinate resources. By collecting and analyzing the extensive data generated every second of every day, tools such as the IBM Intelligent Operations Center coordinate and share data in a single view creating the big picture for the decision makers and responders who support the smarter city. Planning and management strategies include: public safety, smarter buildings and urban planning, government and agency administration; Infrastructure strategies include: Energy and water, environmental, transportation; Citizen programs include: social programs, healthcare, education.

IBM Smart cities include: Portland, Memphis, Rio de Janeiro. Rio is the most integrated and biggest example of the Smart City Operations Center.

Cisco Smart and Connected Communities: On their website Cisco describes their program thus:
As world populations shift to urban areas, community leaders are pressed for answers to related problems. These include overcrowding, pollution, budget and resource constraints, inadequate infrastructures, and the need for continuing growth. Cisco Smart+Connected Communities solutions use intelligent networking capabilities to bring together people, services, community assets, and information to help community leaders address these world challenges. By connecting the unconnected, we can do amazing things to address these real world challenges and create a more sustainable environment. 

Cisco Smart Cities include: Northern Ohio, City of Holyoke, San Francisco, and Amsterdam. 

The emphasis of these programs is to provide "smart" systems and technologies to assist in running cities efficiently and in ways that aim to make the city less polluted, less congested and less over-extended. But as Townsend noted, much of the talk is about the role of technology as a savior in these cities, relegating the actual human input aside. While it may be useful to predict where crime, emergencies or congestion may happen, it is also necessary to work on the underlying issues and to involve citizens in the process, empowering both themselves and the city.With so much data being generated by the city and its residents, it is also necessary to interrogate issues surrounding the collection and retention of such data, as well as ask what all of it is used for. Doing this may raise issues of surveillance and privacy, among other less sinister information and uses. However, by focusing on the technology as separate from people, many of these concerns have been rendered less visible, lending an element of neutrality to the systems and infrastructure of smart cities. This suggests that their needs to be a version of smart cities that not only is concerned with technology but which is inclusive of people. To be smart, cities must also engage their citizens in working toward solutions.

Others suggest that smart cities do not hold the answer for a greener, cleaner, safer, efficient, equitable and tolerant city. Indeed Kevin Slavin suggests that it is not smart cities and smart urbanisms to which we should be looking, but to new ways of living in the city:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Exploring Sydney's Digital-Urban Interface

Accessing the digital layers ... networked urbanism is ruining our posture!
Recently, Sophia and I took a group of 25 urban geography students on a field trip in the Central Business District of Sydney, designed to examine various ways in which the digital and the urban are coming together.

We based the field trip on the 'Systems/Layers Walkshop' concept designed by Nurri Kim and Adam Greenfield for Do Projects. Nurri and Adam have produced a fantastic booklet that can be used to help prepare for such an exercise, based on their experiences of running these 'walkshops' in a number of cities.

The purpose of the walkshop is to develop a better understanding of networked urbanism and its implications. To quote from their booklet:
We live in an age in which the form of cities, the ways in which we experience them, and the choices they present us with are all in the process of profound and rapid change, driven by the presence of networked information-processing systems everywhere around us. Mobile phones, CCTV cameras, building-scale displays, embedded sensors, and remotely-operated barriers are all part of this transformation. Between them, these systems superimpose a layer of information on top of the physical bricks and paths of the city, and this is increasingly a place where control over space and behavior can be exerted.
We believe that understanding this layer, the systems that make it up, and its implications for the freedom to move and act is vital to full citizenship in the congested, contested urban spaces of the twenty-first century.
And so, the walkshop is a tool to develop this understanding of layers and systems, and to generate discussion about their implications. This is what you do:
What you’re going to be looking for are appearances of the networked digital in the physical, and vice versa: apertures through which the things that happen in the real world are gathered up by the global informational network, and contexts in which information originating on the network affects what people see, confront and are able to do.
Places where information is being collected.
Places where information is being displayed.
Places where networked information is being acted upon.
I also asked the participants to read Dan Hill's wonderful essay on 'The Street as Platform' in preparation for the day.

We focused our attention on a couple of relatively small areas in the Central Business District. For those who know Sydney, here's how we rolled...

We started at Central Station, where we had a talk from two people from the City of Sydney about their Food Truck program and mobile app.

We then caught a train from Central Station to Circular Quay, for a walk around followed by a talk from the folks at Skedgo, who are responsible for the real-time public transport app TripGo.

After a break for lunch, we then caught a train back to Town Hall Station, and broke up into small groups to explore the terrain between Town Hall and St James Station on foot. We reconvened as a large group to report back on our small group observations and reflect on the day.

Here's a quick report on what we saw and what we learnt, and some reflections on the experience.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The politics of location in the networked city

"Mobile media devices are increasingly equipped with sophisticated location-awareness capabilities, which enable the devices and their users to be located and represented on digital maps of urban space. This recent development has the potential to transform and intensify the interactions between urban places and digital spaces. This project will assess the implications of this development for the governance of cities. It will provide a systematic overview of the different ways in which location-awareness capabilities are being put to use, and it will explain how these locative media projects are enmeshed in wider political contests over the nature of cities and the ways in which their populations are governed."
That's the rather dry summary of a research project proposal I submitted to the Australian Research Council in 2011. To my surprise and delight (and apparently to Quadrant's displeasure), that application was successful and I was granted some funds to conduct the research. Yay!

My interest in the politics of location that's emerging at the digital-urban interface first arose during a period of extended parental leave way back in 2008, when I actually had time to read a few novels. Among the books I read were William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Cory Doctorow's Big Brother. Both books are science fiction of the 'near future' variety, and emerging locative technologies are crucial to the worlds that their characters are trying to navigate. Shady government authorities, police, artists, advertisers, activists, crooks and teenage hackers are all busy trying to figure out what they can do with GPS, RFID, mobile phones, portable computers, and the like. The books speak to the ways in which these various locative technologies are being enrolled in a range of quite different projects with quite different political implications.

Here they are (will I regret admitting to reading teenage fiction on a blog?? Little Brother is Doctorow's first book for teenagers ... it's a good one!)

Reading both these books was exhilarating. In 2007, I'd published my first book Publics and the City, which is about struggles over the meaning and possibilities of urban public space.  That book concludes with some reflections on the significance of media for our experience of the city -- a significance which is too frequently overlooked with the persistence of the 'stage' as a metaphor for the city's contribution to public life. But reading Gibson and Doctorow made me realise just how little I had thought about the ways in which mobile computing and communications technologies were interacting with the urban in efforts to make publics and do politics.

How had I missed all this? Certainly, even way back then when iPhones were still a novelty, some people were on to this -- in my own academic discipline of geography, folks like Steve Graham, Rob Kitchin, Martin Dodge and Mike Crang were drawing attention to the role of code in producing space and the politics of 'sentient cities'. Beyond that discipline, people like Anne Galloway and Scott McQuire were writing about ubiquitous computing and the urban, and beyond academia, folks like Adam Greenfield and Dan Hill were also trying to raise awareness of the ways in which these technologies were becoming an invisible part of everyday urban life (Galloway's article in Cultural Studies was published in 2004, Greenfield's book Everyware came out in 2006, and McQuire's book The Media City came and Hill's wonderful essay on the street as platform appeared on his blog in 2008).

While it took those encounters with Gibson and Doctorow for me to finally pay attention, it seems I wasn't the only urbanist to have neglected these developments. When I finally put a grant application together in 2011, I did a quick search through some of the key urban studies/urban geography journals. I found that not a single article published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Urban Studies, or Planning Theory had discussed location-aware mobile media devices or locative media even in passing. Only one article across these three key journals even made mention of ‘mobile media’. With notable exceptions like the people mentioned above, it seemed as though the 'digital' folks and the 'urban' folks weren't really engaging with one another. But it's crucial that they do if we are to get to grips with the rapid on-going developments at the digital-urban interface.

Happily, more and more people are taking steps out of their disciplinary comfort zones, and exciting cross-disciplinary dialogues are starting to take place. This blog is intended to be a little contribution to that dialogue.

One of the reasons I'm incredibly grateful to have received funding for this research is that it means I'm not doing it alone -- Sophia Maalsen is now contributing her very excellent research skills to the project. One of her on-going roles is to scour the world for examples of the ways in which different actors are putting locative technologies to use for different purposes. And seeings as how we receiving public money to do this, it seems like a good idea to share!

So, when we find cool/creepy/crazy stuff, we'll post some of it here.

We'll also post some analysis and reflection along the way, in the hope that it might contribute to on-going conversations and maybe even receive some useful feedback.

Thanks for reading!