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June 2009

Digital Cities 6

I finally got a chance to attend a workshop in the Digital Cities series last week at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009) at Penn State University. Digital Cities 6, organized by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano and Hiromitsu Hattori, focused on the theme of "Concepts, Methods and Systems of Urban Informatics". The participants and projects represented a broad range of ways that digital technology can enhance people, places, events and other things in cities. [I've posted some photos from the workshop on Flickr, with the "digitalcities6" tag.]

Martijn de Waal started things off with "The Urban ideals of Location Based Media", positing the question "What is a city?" and noting some of its dimensions:

  • a bunch of infrastructure
  • a cultural system
  • a community
  • a polity

Among the themes that resonated most strongly with me was his assertion that location based media is not [necessarily] "anywhere, anytime, anything" but here and now, his suggestion that we shift our attention from placelessness to situatedness, his invitation to reconsider the prioritization of efficiency over all else, and his distinction between casting people as citizens vs. consumers. Martijn has [also] posted a set of excellent notes from the workshop.

CO2nfessionCO2mittment-small Jonas Fritsch presented "Between Engagement and Information: Experimental Urban Media in the Climate Change Debate" [slides], which included a number of interesting projects designed to promote civic engagement (a recurring theme throughout the workshop and the conference). One project was CO2nfession / CO2mmitment (photo on right), in which citizens could enter a booth at a climate change event in Aarhus to videorecord both a confession of their sins of CO2 emissions and seek absolution through a commitment to reducing their future emissions. These CO2nfessions and CO2mmitments were then shown on displays at the event venue. Another project was Climate on the Wall, inspired by magnetic poetry (and perhaps Tetris), in which words and phrases associated with climate change were projected on the side of a building, and people could physically interact with those projected terms to form statements reflecting their views on climate change via their movement at or near the wall.

Jon Lukens was next up, talking about "Seeing the City through Machines: Non-anthropocentric Design and Youth Robotics", in which he described a workshop to get youth involved in the design of urban robots to encourage them to think critically about different (non-human) relations to the environment helps reveal new design considerations - seeing the city through new [robotic] eyes. The students were given the task of designing a robot to participate in an infrastructure scavenger hunt in an urban area. One group of students produced a video called "Curiosity Killed the Camera", but unfortunately, I can't find it anywhere. Interestingly, while encouraging students to think more critically about themselves and their bodies as they exist in space, one student asked "am I a robot?" I found myself thinking about Stelarc as representing a rather extreme position on the spectrum of reconsidering selves, bodies and spaces.

CreateClub-Jelly-PaneraBread-KansasCity-LauraForlano Laura Forlano shared some ideas about "Building the Open Source City: Changing Work Environments for Collaboration and Innovation" (many of which are described in greater detail in a great blog post about Work and the Open Source City). She motivated this theme, in part, via an experience at Panera Bread in Kansas City, where she stumbled upon some people working at a table with a sign saying "Create Club" and "Jelly" (see photo to the right), the latter of which has become a meme [tag] for casual coworking - people working on different things coming together to work in the company of others at homes or third places. Laura talked about NEWworkCITY, a slightly more formal comunity coworking space (reminding me of Office Nomads here in Seattle), noting that a natural tension arises in such such spaces “for like-minded people” between homogeneity and heterogeneity. She also presented Project BREAKOUT!, part of the Toward the Sentient City exhibition planned for September 2009, in which people will be invited to bring their work out of their offices and into public spaces around New York City (such as parks), in what sounded to me a bit like a flash work mob. She finished off with a brief description of UrbanOmnibus, a project of the Architectural League of New York that seeks engagement from a broad range of urban stakeholders in the design and redesign of urban spaces.

I presented "Ambient Informatics in Urban Cafés", an overview of CoCollage, our place-based social networking application that uses a large computer display to show a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded to a special web site by patrons and staff in a café or other community-oriented place. Rather than writing more about it here, I'll simply embed the slides I used for the presentation from SlideShare ... and encourage any readers who were also at the workshop (or the conference) to post their slides, with the "cct2009" tag (I also used the "digitalcities6" tag for my workshop slides). [Further details can be found in our main conference paper, "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software".]

Marcus Foth motivated his talk on "Urban Futures: A Performance-based Approach to Residential Design" by noting a frequent problem in the urban planning process (which UrbanOmnibus is presumably also trying to address): citizens share ideas with urban planners, but they never get any feedback, i.e., they rarely know whether any of their input has any impact on the planning. Marcus and his colleagues created some new ways to elicit ideas from prospective citizens (or denizens) of a future master-planned community about what their ideal house would look and feel like. In an open space, participants were invited to close their eyes, imagine and act out (perform) how they would enter their home, and then record their ideas using crayons and paper on the floor. The outcome is a set of personas representing the kinds of people who might like to live in the planned community. The approach strikes me as an interesting mashup between the TrueHome approach of walkthroughs and interviews to understand personalities in the process of designing a home (which I first read about in Sam Gosling's book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, and I think some of his other insights into possessions, perceptions projections and personalities would also be applicable), and the Focus Troupe approach of using drama and theatre to elicit ideas for new consumer products.

Ross Harley - who traveled all the way from the University of New South Wales, Australia, just to attend the one-day workshop (and not the rest of the conference) - presented "Contactless Contact: Reconceptualising Radio and Architecture in the Wireless City". Ross showed some videos visualizing traveling through airspace in and around airports developed as part of the Aviopolis project. He and his colleagues are now shifting from studying airports to studying air, applying what ethermapping and other methods from experimental geography to explore the politics and aesthetics of invisible radio frequency networks - and their "intersecting thresholds of intensities" (my favorite new term from the workshop) - in and around cities. He cited the Touch Project, which explores potential connections between RFID-enabled mobile phones and [other] physical things, and a paper by Jerry Kang on Pervasive Computing: Embedding the Public Sphere, as interesting related examples of this kind of work ... and I found myself thinking about one of my favorite [dystopian] videos depicting a scenario in which the [RF] airwaves might be mined and mapped in interesting ways: The Catalogue, by Chris Oakley:

SenseableCity-TheWorldInsideNewYork Clio Andris presented the keynote, "Urban Informatics in a Digital Revolution", a catalog of projects at the Senseable City Lab at MIT, on behalf of her advisor, Carlo Ratti, who was unable to attend. There were way too many projects presented in this whirlwind tour to describe them here - all can be found at the Senseable City Lab home page - so I'll just mention a few here. One was the New York Talk Exchange, which includes visualizations on varying scales of the different places to which people in New York make phone calls (proxies for the web of the connections and relationships of New Yorkers). The photo on the right is one such visualization, The World Inside New York, representing the connections made from different neighborhoods within New York to different countries around the world. Clio talked about an extension of this work that is / will be applying graph theory to mobile phone calls made around the city (though it may be a city in UK) as a way of approximating the demarcation of the city boundaries.

TrashTrack-StarbucksCup StarbucksCupsAtEtech2007 Another project, Trash | Track, allows users (citizens?) to attach an active RFID tracking device to an article of trash, and then be able to track where that trash goes. The first example is a Starbucks cup that has been tracked in Seattle. The project reminds me of an automated version of Where's George, where dollar bills are tracked via serial numbers manually entered into a web site. There is a blog associated with the project, and there is a set of photos on Flickr, but I haven't been able to find anywhere that people can track any items in real-time. The photo to the left is from one of the recent blog entries, which represents the trajectory of the aforementioned Starbucks cup (as of, approximately, 20 May 2009) ... and the photo to the right is one I took two years at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies conference (ETech 2007) ... and I'm thinking that ETech 2010 might be a promising venue for a demonstration of Trash | Track. Meanwhile, I'd love to find out how I can participate in Trash | Track locally.

The presentation concluded with some historical context:

  • The agricultural revolution allowed us to harvest food to achieve sustainability
  • The industrial revolution allowed us to harvest human innovation and capitol labor resources
  • The digital revolution is allowing us to harvest information about all agents in the built environment, seen and unseen

I'm not entirely comfortable with the framing of these developments in terms of harvesting - which could be cast as a form of corporatist exploitation and extraction that Doug Rushkoff talks about in his recent book, Life, Inc. - but the presentation achieved its goal of being relevant, stimulating and provocative.

Ubidisplays-toripolliisi_small Hannu Kukka presented "A Digital City Needs Open Pervasive Computing Infrastructure", providing an overview of the UrBan Interactions (UBI) program at the University of Oulu in Finland. The goal of the program is to impose a visible and lasting change on the Finnish society (as opposed, or perhaps in addition, to publishing papers about the work). The program is deploying a network of UBI displays - large interactive displays with cameras, NFC / RFID, Bluetooth, wireless LAN and touch-screen capabilities - throughout Oulu. Twelve displays will be deployed - 6 indoor and 6 outdoor (the outdoor display installations will have two screens facing opposite directions). The displays will include user-generated media as well as local information and advertising. They are developing and plan to release open source toolkits for mobile phones that will enable users to interact with the displays, and to develop their own applications for use on / with the displays. Among the recent publications from the project is "Leveraging social networking services to encourage interaction in public spaces" from the MUM 2008 conference ... which sounds very relevant to our current project as well as some earlier work on "The Context, Content & Community Collage: Sharing Personal Digital Media in the Physical Workplace", a paper presented at the CSCW 2008 conference (for which, of course, I posted the slides). It sounds like a very interesting and relevant project - far more ambitious than our C3 Collage project at Nokia - but unfortunately, I can't find any images or videos to include in these notes. [Update: Timo Ojala sent me some links to photos and a video; I've embedded one of the photos above, but the video is a 58MB FLV file that must be downloaded to be viewed.]

Songdo_First_World_Tower_001 Germaine Halegoua presented "The Export of Ubiquitous Place: Investigating South Korean U-cities", including some interviews she's conducted with some of the people involved in the U-City project in Seoul, South Korea (aka the Seoul Digital Media City or DMC) and the Songdo U-Life project outside of Seoul in the new Free Economic Zone (FEZ) created in Incheon. Germaine is interested in what she calls the "cultural geography of media" (another cool new term for me), investigating the places of production and places of consumption of online media. In the DMC, the effort is to integrate new media technology into an existing city (what she called "hybridity" or "coexisting combination"); in U-Life, the goal is to co-develop the technology infrastructure with other dimensions of the planning and architecture - what the developers call a "Synergy City" - and then to export the business model to other cities. A recent photo of the Sondo is included to the right; more photos and a video can be found on their master plan page. Germaine will be traveling to Korea soon, to see how these plans are developing first-hand.

Last, but not least, Andrew Wong presented "Mobile Interactions as Social Machine: Young Urban Poor at Play in Cities in Bangladesh", in which he described three genres of using mobile phones: entertainment, enlarging their social network and creative mobile use to save cost through code. Many of the practices of the young urban poor are quite interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by what he called "missed call signaling" - calling a number and hanging up, sometimes multiple times in succession, to save the cost of an answered mobile phone call. Andrew described the "regional" languages - or perhaps dialects - that have evolved over time (he used the term "hyper-localization of communication"), highlighting how shallow media can be imbued with rich meaning with the right confluence of economic, social and/or entertainment incentives. This nuanced use of signaling reminded me of what was (for me), the highlight of the last Communities and Technologies conference (C&T 2007): Judith Donath's keynote on "Standing on Boxes: Signaling Costs and Benefits in Online and Offline Social Network".

I'll post some notes from the main conference in the near future. For now, I'll end off by noting that one of the many interesting serendipitous discoveries I made in searching around for links relating to the workshop is, unfortunately, a missed opportunity: a relevant project being conducted at Penn State Public Broadcasting - The Geospatial Revolution ("The location of anything is becoming everything"). Unfortunately, I did not see any members from that team at the workshop, despite its being held at the PSU campus ... perhaps we'll see them at the next Digital Cities workshop at C&T 2011, in Queensland, Australia (being chaired by Marcus Foth, one of he organizers of the Digital Cities workshop this year).

Many thanks to the organizers - and other participants - for co-creating such an engaging event!