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.


Surveillance was the most visible system of data capture by far. Counting CCTV cameras soon got boring - at the start of the day, in the 100 metre walk we made from the platform at Circular Quay railway station to the concourse below, we counted over 30 cameras tracking our movements. (I wonder what their operators made of a group of 25 people standing around pointing at the cameras and taking their photograph?) And we walked past dozens, if not hundreds, more cameras over the course of the day. It was difficult to know who operated many of them -- we couldn't find signs for some, and even those with signs often failed to state the name of the authority that was collecting data from them.

Various bits of surveillance infrastructure, Circular Quay railway station
CCTV was not the only form of surveillance we encountered. One group of students reported on a conversation they had with the driver of a delivery vehicle. He told them that his movements throughout the city were remotely monitored by his employer via the networked GPS device installed in his vehicle -- this system was designed to improve the efficiency of the delivery fleet, but from his perspective, this entailed a form of surveillance that had resulted in significant work intensification.

Parking meters were also 'networked', enabling credit card transactions to pay for parking, and parking inspectors were equipped with hand-held devices to print fines, log locations and license plates, and store data.

Spatial demarcation and barriers

We passed card- and RFID-reading doors, gates, lifts, and bollards a-plenty in our travels, each one of which presumably depends on integration with a digital database of authorised entrants, and each one of which also presumably collects data on entries (and possibly exits).

The lifts at the bottom of the City of Sydney office building adjacent to Town Hall were the site of a very physical ritual of staff stretching out their ID cards to gain access to their workplace.


Of course, given that we were in the CBD, systems and layers concerned with consumption were almost as ubiquitous as surveillance. A few examples...

The availability of EFTPOS facilities in shops was near universal (the ramen joint in which Sophie and I had lunch was cash only ... but you could like it on Facebook of course!), and a great many retailers advertised loyalty schemes for shoppers. This combination of credit and loyalty systems is put to work for a range of purposes, including consumer profiling and advertising.

A great many advertisements in the city contained with web addresses or QR codes. Here, advertisements are designed to encourage consumers to access extra layers of data about products and services beyond the information in the advertisement itself.

Window advertising with QR code, George Street

There were relatively few digital screens displaying advertisements, although we did come across some inside train stations, lifts and shopping malls.

While screens aren't yet common in Sydney's streets, they have become a standard feature of lifts in CBD buildings

Several commercial establishments also sought to engage customers via social media, with advertised discounts and/or prizes for people who 'liked' their business on Facebook, etc.

The Sydney Food Trucks app that we had heard about from the City of Sydney at the start of our walk was also focused on enabling a particular kind of consumption. As the City reps told us, the program is part of wider 'night time economy' agenda of the City, in which the City is seeking to diversify food options beyond the ubiquitous late night kebab and branded fast food offerings. Trucks have to go through pretty extensive registration process to get a license, and then are fitted with GPS devices. These devices are partly designed to ensure that the Trucks don't breach regulations which define where they are allowed to set themselves up. But the information is also used in an App that allows people to see where trucks are located in real-time. 

Transportation and Navigation

While Sydney is probably a little 'behind' other cities in this regard, transportation and navigation are increasingly networked, so that people's movements are both facilitated by digital systems and generate yet more digital data.

We observed many private vehicles fitted with satellite navigation devices. We also observed a car share vehicle, equipped with RFID readers to regulate access to the vehicle to members who have booked the vehicle.

Taxi with Sat Nav.
GoGet (car share) van with RFID reader conneted to locks and ignition.

As for public transport, after many years of embarrassing and expensive failures, Sydney finally has a new public transport 'smart card' - the Opal card - that is currently being trialled on the ferry services and some train lines. Card readers are now appearing at barriers across the network. As is the case in other cities with smart cards, Opal card users will generate vast mountains of data about public transport use in the city. They will also be connected, in many if not most instances, to the credit accounts of their users for automatic top-up.

Opal Card Reader, Circular Quay
Of course, the existing magnetic-coded tickets and barriers already collect plenty of information about patterns of transport use, as do ticket dispensing machines connected to credit systems.

Train ticket machine, St James Station
We were treated to an impromptu, and very informative, talk from one of the barrier attendants at a Ferry wharf in Circular Quay about the current trial of 'real-time' information displays about ferry movements. Ferries have been equipped with GPS devices, and on approach to the wharves, a computer system allocates an available wharf space and advises passengers accurate information about impending arrivals and departures.

Real-time Ferry Information Trial

This trial builds on the installation of GPS in all buses in Sydney - this installation is now a contractual requirement for all bus operators in the city, and is observable via the signs and aerials on buses. Unlike the ferries, real-time information about bus locations is not displayed at bus stops. But it has now been made available to the public via an expanding number of transport apps for mobile devices that have been authorised by the State Government.

One of many ads for new NSW Transport Apps

We popped in on the developer of one of those apps (Skedgo, who run TripGo), who told us a little about the competitive process they went through to have their app authorised. They also explained that they are still unable to provide real-time information about trains, which continue to operate on a system that is incompatible with more modern location technologies (train locations are monitored by track sensors on approach to train stations, a 'legacy system' for which there is no workaround as yet -- real-time train information from these sensors is displayed on public screens on platforms, however).

Platform screen, Circular Quay station

It probably goes without saying that we found the SkedGo office when I announced the address to the group, and several people plugged the address into their smart-phones and followed the little blue dot on their screens. At that point, I got a little nostalgic about the olden days and the pleasures of being lost ... and received many bemused and uncomprehending looks for my trouble. As with CCTV, we eventually stopped counting the number of people in the city who appeared to be accessing maps and transport data on the mobile devices.


In the parts of the city we walked, there was a surprising lack of places advertising publicly-accessible internet and/or wi-fi. We did come across one small public library kiosk with free computer/internet access, provided by the City of Sydney Council. Compared to other cities people had experienced, there was also a relative paucity of digital signage and screens. Yes, you could find them inside shopping malls and the like, but in Sydney, regulators continue to debate the rules that will apply to digital advertising screens in public spaces.

Old school public screen.
Most of the evidence we found of digital information provision depended upon access to private, rather than public, screens. For instance, in the Rocks, an historic part of the city, many signs carrying historical and tourist information also had QR codes, enabling smart phone users to access further information if they so desired.

NFC and QR code reference points, The Rocks.
I also lost count of the number of advertisements advertising mobile apps that promised to make life better.
Indeed mapping capabilities have recently been added to Central Train Station

A few reflections on our experience...

Compared to a lecture, this walkshop was a way more effective means of demonstrating the 'taken-for-grantedness' of a range of digital systems and layers that have become part of the background of everyday urban life. By the end of the day, most of us had achieved a little distance from our habits, and were approaching these systems and layers with a bit more of a conscious, and therefore critical, eye. Mission accomplished ... mostly! I think a few faces still carried looks of bemusement about the whole experience at the end of the day, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Which of course leads us to the question - what was all the fuss about? Why should we care about any of this?

The 'so what?' discussion at the end of the day was especially interesting to me, and it generated a number of issues. As you can imagine, the issue of privacy got a good run in our discussions - it's a very common frame for interrogating these developments. But as important as this is, it was good that some other issues were identified too.

We had an interesting conversation about the different kinds of projects that were animating the various applications we had identified - the overwhelming majority of observable systems and layers seemed to be concerned with surveillance, commerce and wayfinding. We also talked about the kinds of interpolation and interception enabled by various applications, in light of reading we had been doing by our two 'Steves' ... Flusty and Graham ... on spaces of interdiction and software-sorted geographies. The question of how we were being addressed, how our behaviour was being shaped, and how we were being positioned in relation to others is certainly of great interest to me.

A final issue of particular interest concerned the ownership of data and the role of the public and private sectors in the production of applications. Here, the comparison between the City of Sydney and NSW Transport was quite interesting. The City had taken the approach with the Food Trucks program of developing their own app with their data. The tech people there had some reservations about this and the associated closure of the data ... but on the other hand, it was done very cheaply, and with considerable success. TripGo, on the other hand, was produced by a private company licensed to access data provided by the state under quite strict conditions, and is one of several transport apps available in a market. When asked about the relative merits of this approach, not surprisingly, the Skedgo folks were of the view that the private sector was best placed to develop apps, and that data should be made available. But there are some interesting issues here about the positioning of users as consumers, about who is extracting profit from the data, etc. 

Reflecting on the walkshop format, I think the talks we organised at various points during the trip worked quite well in surfacing some issues that might not have been immediately visible to us as detached observers. Our various informants were the source of some important insights about the kinds of policy issues and conflicts that are accompanying the proliferation of digital systems and layers in the city. For instance, from representatives of the City and Skedgo, we got quite different perspectives about the role of the state and the private sector in collecting and distributing digital data to urban inhabitants. Nor do I think many of us would have thought of the industrial implications of a real-time monitoring system designed to increase efficiency by reducing 'downtime', unless some of us had stopped to talk to a delivery guy. And hey ... it was nice to have the occasional rest while we sat down to listen to someone else talk, a point that's not insignificant if you want to keep people engaged across a whole day!

If we do it again, I think I'd start and finish in a more controlled environment. For some reason, trying to get discussion in a park in the morning proved to be especially difficult. And while the discussion at Hyde Park and St James station in the afternoon was terrific, we didn't really capture either our observations or reflections very well as a group for further analysis and publication.

So, a big thanks to Nurri and Adam for the template, and to the participants for their insights and contributions!

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