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 VĂ©lib. 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, 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!