Urban data: From fetish object to social object
A one-day conversation at LSE Cities on 14th March, 2014
Anyone paying even casual attention to contemporary media, whether popular or scholarly, is now exposed to a steady cascade of voices assuring us that we live in something called the Age of Big Data.
Whichever audience they are aimed at, such assertions are generally illustrated by images of interactive visualizations, digital maps and “infographics.” Each of these may originally have been intended by its designers to convey some complex state of affairs, readily and accessibly, but has been used in this context primarily to signify the zeitgeist itself.
These images furnish the practice of data analysis and decision support with a visual rhetoric, and they circulate widely. They are reproduced endlessly on blog posts, posted to Facebook and Pinterest and Tumblr, tweeted and retweeted and retweeted again. They circulate, and they seduce. They are admired as much for their beguilingly aesthetic qualities as for any analytical or practical utility they may have. The result is that while data visualizations surely do a kind of work in the world, it may not be the kind of work we’re led to believe they’re capable of doing.
This is (or, I’d argue, ought to be) of particular concern to those of us with an interest in urban politics specifically. It leaves us very little with which to challenge the story we are told about Big Data in cities: that it will transform the processes of municipal governance and administration — that leveraging it can raise emergent chokepoints and trouble spots to the attention of the relevant authorities, cut through circumstances once thought intractable, even help managers anticipate and preempt crises before they quite coalesce into being. When this rather sterile and technocratic conception of data-driven superintendence is fused to a cultural expectation that data visualizations function as pretty pictures and little more, virtually everything that is interesting and potentially emancipatory about them is left on the table.
The intention of this one-day gathering is to convene some of those whose work is currently doing the most to push back against this set of circumstances. It aims to disturb the data visualizations we’re offered as settled facts, disinter them from the loam of zeitgeisty but near-meaningless infoporn that has settled over the practice of data visualization (and which furnishes more than one glossy coffee-table book), and activate them instead as situated social objects.
We’ll be discussing questions like…
- Who makes the data represented in interactive visualizations and maps, and how?
- Who are the parties responsible for gathering the data, and what criteria do they use for the selection and representation of information they feel to be salient?
- What pressures may be operating on either selection or representation?
- What domains of urban life seem to lend themselves most readily to intervention via participatory mapping or data visualization?
- How can those who generated the data in the first place gain access to it later, either in raw form or as analytic product?
- What implications follow from the choice of a given technical platform or presentation strategy?
- What does it feel like to work with data, in any of these phases or aspects?
- What can communities do with data visualization, as practice or artifact?
Our speakers will present some cases in which local communities from all over the planet have used participatory data-gathering and -mapping practices to open up questions of distributional justice, make claims against power, and gain a sense of themselves as having agency and competence with networked tools. Together, perhaps we can begin to push data visualizations from being fetishized tokens of a notional futurity — and, at best, flat and settled representations of the way things are in the city — to active propositions about the way things might be.
Featuring presentations from and conversations with
Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, Mülksüzleştirme, Istanbul TR
Rachel Binx, NYC NY
Arlindo Pereira, Ciclo Rotas Centro, Rio de Janeiro BR
Nithya V. Raman, Transparent Chennai, Chennai IN/Los Angeles CA
Paula Z. Segal, 596 Acres, Brooklyn NY
Mona Sloane, Configuring Light, London UK
Dr. Farida Vis, Everyday Growing Cultures, Sheffield UK
Even Westvang, Bengler, Oslo NO
and other speakers to be confirmed
and introduced and moderated by yours truly.
Free and open to the public, but registration is essential. Robin Howie‘s lovely poster is here; feel free to download and disseminate as widely as you please. Please use hashtag #LSEUrbanData. We look forward to seeing you.
Two recent interviews, neither of which will appear in their original English when published. I apologize if they’re slightly redundant, either between the two presented here or between these and other recent interviews I’ve given. (A guy gets tired of answering the same questions all the time, you know?) I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.
Where is the world now in terms of developing smart cities? Is it at the start of a long journey? What’s the level of investment now?
Well, as you probably know, I don’t use the terminology “smart cities” at all. As a matter of fact, that term itself is sort of a dead giveaway that we’re just beginning to discover the potential that waits for us at the intersection of networked information technology and everyday urban experience.
What I see so far, just about everywhere, is partial, tactical, disarticulated propositions, very much inflected by existing institutional practices and the perspectives and investment priorities of incumbents. This city has RFID-mediated transit payment, that one has dynamic pricing markets for parking, still another has a robust and useful open municipal data platform — but very, very few places on Earth have yet quite grasped the potential that arises when all of these things exist all at once, in a conscious informational ecosystem, and each element is able to feed on the data produced by every other.
In a perverse way, though, we may be benefiting from precisely this sense of disarticulation and disconnection. What we wind up with, when every object and surface and transaction in the city is made visible to the network, is an extraordinarily detailed picture of our movements, our behaviors and our patterns of association. There’s obviously an enormous amount of value locked up in that picture, value that will yield quite readily to the application of advanced analytics — but I’m not sure any of us as individuals, let alone any human society, is quite ready to face up to total transparency, or will quite like what we see in the mirror these technologies hold up to us.
What are the benefits, to individuals and society?
At present, these technologies are generally sold to municipalities with a set of fairly predictable claims about enhanced efficiency, convenience, security and sustainability, but quite frankly I think those are red herrings. The real benefits we stand to realize from the introduction of networked informatics into our cities are the increased sense of control we achieve over the circumstances of our own lives, the enhancement of our competence as citydwellers, and the potential they hold to underwrite new and more responsive patterns of land use, mobility and urban governance.
How viable is it to convert existing infrastructures into smarter set-ups?
I think that very much depends on the kind of infrastructure we’re talking about. As far as heavy urban infrastructure is concerned, it’s straightforward enough to retrofit existing sewerage systems or electric grids with flow meters and so forth. But the cleverest interventions of all rely solely on the networked sensor package, identity credential and interface device 96 out of every 100 adults on the planet already carry around on their person at all times: the mobile phone. Solutions that leverage this set of capabilities can be deployed almost immediately, and at comparatively negligible expense.
What sectors stand to benefit as these ideas gather more investment?
I think it’s fair to say that in the medium term, every sector will find some operational efficiency to be gleaned from the deployment of this class of technologies. But as we collectively get more fluent with them, as we begin to unfold the fuller potential that’s bound up in them, our societies (and our business practices along with them) will necessarily undergo a profoundly disruptive series of transformations, and these may well result in a set of institutions someone approaching them from the vantage point of the twenty-teens would barely recognize. Clay Shirky famously said that institutions tend to conserve the problem to which they are the solution. This may be a reasonably clever strategy in the short term, but it leaves organizations and even entire sectors dead as the dinosaurs when the problem they’re designed to solve evaporates. What too many enterprises are doing right now amounts to perfecting the horseshoe at the very moment the automobile has started to arrive on the streets and roads of the land. The advantage under conditions of rapid and far-reaching change, therefore, goes to those actors who are able to transform their processes, their value proposition, their structure and even their very form to account for the terrain on which they now operate. The city, as a terrain of business operations, is evolving furiously at our moment in time, and it’s by no means certain that each and every one of our incumbent institutions and ways of doing things will survive.
What do you mean by smart cities: are you referring only to the three sites you’ve described in your book or more generally to existing cities upgraded with technologies?
Well, as I explain in the pamphlet, we need to understand that the phrase “smart city” only refers to the most limited and impoverished conception of the networked urban environment. It’s a particular discourse, in other words, and that discourse really only implies three things: the deployment of a centralized apparatus of data capture and analysis by existing enterprise-scale IT vendors; the wholesale abstraction and quantification of urban processes to render them transparent to that apparatus, and tractable by it; and the development of managerial techniques useful to an administrative authority so equipped.
The three places on Earth I examine in the pamphlet are of interest primarily as sites where this discourse finds its purest expression. In and of themselves, they’re trivial footnotes in the history of human habitation, not anything like “cities” by any reasonable definition of the word. Their sole significance is that they are staging grounds for the techniques a particular class of institutional actors badly wants to deploy across all conurbations in the years to come.
You’re writing about IT companies taking over cities. Could you explain how? What’s the goal?
“Taking over” may be a bit strong, but IT companies and their products “coming to play an outsized and inappropriate role in the management of” cities is probably about right.
From their perspective, the goal is clearly to find new markets for their existing products and services, or minor variations thereupon. IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center product, for example, is merely a zeitgeisty repackaging of a set of rules governing the execution of preset, stereotyped procedures any time the distributed mesh of sensing devices detects that some threshold value of a given metric has been breached. But for the claim that the software suite develops a full enough picture of what’s happening in the city on a minute-by-minute basis that it can help administrators predict and preempt emergent conditions, what it does is very little more elaborate than the rules you might set up to manage spam filters for your email client’s inbox. It’s something one might use to manage the operations of any large organization. There’s virtually nothing about it that’s inherently or specifically urban.
You’re describing cities subjecting citizens to the logic of algorithms. Could you elaborate?
In order to transform some body of data you’ve gathered into something an administrator might find meaningful and actionable, you first need to perform some sorting operation on it, right? That’s all an algorithm is, in this sense: a kind of numeric sieve. You toss an utterly opaque and unwieldy urban complexity into the hopper at one end, you apply some set of filters to it, and out the other end comes actionable clarity. That, at is most essential, is the core logic of the smart city: given everything we know about traffic, or the places that garbage accumulates, or the distribution of emergency-room admissions for acute asthma, here is the optimal strategy for dealing with that state of affairs. And we see this rhetoric of optimization throughout the smart city discourse.
This way of thinking may be superficially appealing, but the problems with it are legion. For one thing, famously, correlation isn’t causation, but that’s a nicety that may be lost on a mayor or a municipal administration that wants to be seen as vigorously proactive. If fires disproportionately seem to break out in neighborhoods where lots of poor people live, hey, why not simply clear the poor people out and take credit for doing something about fire? After all, the city dashboard you’ve just invested tens of millions of dollars in made it very clear that neighborhoods that had the one invariably had the other. But maybe there was some underlying, unaddressed factor that generated both fires and the concentration of poverty. (If this example strikes you as a tendentious fabulation, or a case of reductio ad absurdum, trust me: the literature of operations research is replete with highly consequential decisions made on grounds just this shoddy.)
More pointedly, such algorithmically-derived recommendations pretend to be apolitical, when they are anything but. Data analysis might help determine the optimal site for a wind turbine or a rape-crisis center, but in anything that resembles a democracy, believing that those are worthwhile investments to make in the first place deposits us firmly and unavoidably in the realm of politics. At best you can use analytics to make the case that we the public should collectively invest in those facilities, on those locations, for whatever set of reasons the data seems to suggest. But there will always be parties that contest the picture of reality you’re painting, parties that think there are other and better uses of the available resources, and there’s no way of satisfying all the city’s constituencies at once. Not even in principle. There’s simply no such thing as optimizing a city.
Finally, there’s always a politics that inheres in the algorithm to begin with, which tends to be suppressed or elided when any second-order operation whatsoever is performed on the results of its application. Someone — some known historical actor — wrote that algorithm, decided which values to weight and which to discard. Someone decided that “innovation” was an interesting or a useful quantity to measure, but that it was too difficult to measure directly, and so numbers of patent applications would be used as a proxy index for innovation. And then articles appear saying, for example, that San Diego is across-the-board “more innovative” than New York or San Francisco. And people act on those articles! They invest capital, or they move their families halfway across the country, in pursuit of everything that’s implied by that kind of framing. Well, all due respect to San Diego, but anyone who’s thought about the matter for two seconds knows that urban innovation — I’m talking about genuine, materially productive novelty, with real and significant economic value even beyond the generation of cultural capital — doesn’t work that way. It simply cannot be reduced to patent applications. Chicago may not generate much in the way of patents by comparison with, say, Eindhoven, but which one gave the world house music? How much value do you think would have been left on the floor, worldwide, over the past thirty years if Frankie Knuckles had never entered the DJ booth at The Warehouse? How many second- or third-order developments in audio technology, fashion or visual culture would never have come into existence? And where do you think he shows up in that innovation algorithm? Nowhere at all.
The bottom line is that what gets reified in an algorithm like this is driven by what you choose to pay attention to, and what you choose to pay attention to is a function of what you value. There’s not a single neutral thing about it.
Would you say living in smart cities could be a nightmare?
I’m less interested in whether or not living in a so-called smart city could be a nightmare — although I’m certain that it would be for many, and perhaps even statistically most — than in the kinds of subjects and subjectivities that tend to be reproduced by the act of living in such a place.
I think we have a pretty clear sense of what that would look like, at least at the limit. Consider that “optimized” urban management, as a sorting process, tends to create epistemic and experiential bubbles, and it does so in two ways. First, it acts to eliminate the daily frictions that force us to confront the other, and acknowledge the validity of that other’s claims to the city. And secondly, it gives us a set of tools that we can use to manage our own exposure to difference. (I saw a data-analytics company give a presentation a few years ago, where both the headline on their PowerPoint deck and the value proposition they were claiming for their product was literally and in so many words “Find People Like Me.”)
But that’s not how cities work. That’s not, even remotely, what cities are for. You want to be surrounded by People Like You, fine — go live in the suburbs. Cities are, by definition, sites for the practice of cosmopolitanism, and anyone who makes the choice to live in one had better expect that along with the economic opportunity comes the unavoidable necessity of negotiating with people who are different, who hold values and prerogatives that diverge from those you hold yourself. This is a good thing, by the way, a very good thing, because it’s that constant exposure to difference that generates the worldly, tolerant, resilient, feisty personality we associate with big cities around the world and throughout human history.
So to me, it’s not so much that living in a smart city would be a nightmare. It’s that the residents of any city that had been rendered “smart” in the way contemporary discourse suggests would themselves be nightmares to encounter and deal with: touchy, needy, self-absorbed, and above all incapable of negotiating the shared use of resources, whether those resources be spatial, budgetary or attentional.
What would be an alternative to smart cities? Open cities, also connected? What does it mean for inhabitants? For the entire society?
I think we are barely beginning to discover what potentials this class of networked informatic technologies may hold for us.
I like to tell a story about a management consultant I once saw give a talk about technology and the future of civic governance. During the Q&A after his very conventional, bullet-pointy presentation, he was asked if he thought the basic forms of democratic municipal government — elected mayors, city councils and so on — were still relevant, and would remain so. And very surprisingly to me, he said no, that there was a decent chance that due to the decentralizing and distributing effects of networked information technologies, more power would come to reside with citizens themselves, organized in something resembling a federation of autonomous local collectives. I mean, this was a very conservative, very buttoned-down guy, who worked for the most prominent name in his industry, and whether he quite knew it or not, what he was describing would have been immediately familiar to, say, the members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union who ran the Barcelona Telephone Exchange during the first part of the Spanish Civil War. I found it both fascinating that his understanding of contemporary political dynamics would lead him to any such belief, and profoundly hopeful and encouraging.
And that actually is what I believe — that if there’s a tendency to universal surveillance and control latent in the design of these tools, which there unquestionably is, there’s at the same time an equally strong tendency in them to the decentralization and distribution of knowledge of the world, which we can grasp hold of, reinforce and make use of if we choose to. We can use the technics of data collection, representation and actuation to reinforce the best qualities of our cities, and all the things about them that make us stronger and wiser and more capable. And that’s a pretty exciting set of circumstances.
In your view, what are the 3 best cities in the world? And why?
The “best” cities? Best for what, precisely? And for whom?
“One has to become a cybernetician to remain a humanist.” In a sentence, this is why Peter Sloterdijk has become so important to me lately, despite his many and manifest shortcomings.
What this idea emphasizes is the necessity of actively, creatively intervening in the technosocial situation with which we find ourselves confronted, or, in other words, to propose a humanism that lets us not merely endure, but thrive, in a world evolving at the clock speed of informational technics.
To do otherwise is to surrender to the lassitude of a rejectionist and reactionary conception of the human, to content ourselves with the dwindling spoils left to us by the assuredly active and creative exponents of late neoliberalism, whether transhuman or entirely machinic, as they reticulate the world and reconfigure it to best serve their own interests.
The task before us is to discover, or invent, a politics, a mobility and a conviviality that are both authentic to the circumstances in which we find ourselves and capable of giving full expression to the emancipatory potential that remains latent and unrealized in our networked technologies.
Originally posted 25th June 2005 on my old v-2 site. Thank you, Lou.
Celebrity sightings — you’ve gotta get over them if you’re a Manhattanite. It’s a simple, actuarial fact of everyday life here that you’re going to bump into fame, such an unremarkable consequence of residence in the self-proclaimed Center of the World that I’m amazed Gawker and its ilk even bother to keep track of them.
Beyond the fact that it’s a hackneyed situation, speaking personally, there are three reasons why I generally don’t bat an eyelash if I should happen to encounter a boldface name in the street. These reasons have to do with the nature of celebrity, the nature of privacy, and the nature of self-respect.
First, I simply couldn’t care less about ninety-five percent of celebrities – the sports stars, pop singers and debutantes who are celebrated for reasons that have nothing to do with me, whose fame exists in a dimension orthogonal to my interests.
I’m just squeakingly enough of a public person my ownself to understand how weird it can be to have someone come up to you out of nowhere and strike up a conversation when all you’ve set out to do is sit down for coffee with your friends, even to offer sincere praise.
Finally, I’ve still got a little bit of that punk-rock antipathy to the very notion of fame. In its best aspect, this is a much-needed leveling, and an assertion that nobody’s voice is necessarily any more (or less) important than my own, but it can also manifest as a snotty defensiveness. And I’ve been known to swing either way.
For all of these reasons, then, I tend to react to the presence of notoriety not at all. This morning was different, for me.
We had biked over to the shadow-dappled streets of the West Village, where the continental-style bistros are so thick on the ground that you can pick one more or less at random and be assured of getting the experience you’re looking for, whether it’s müsli frühstück or café au lait in bowls the size of Cleveland. And that’s exactly what we did.
We had just locked our bikes up and sat down to breakfast, when who should shamble in but a shabby-genteel Lou Reed, walking a poky-looking beagle. And it took everything I had in me not to flinch or violate his space or in any other way give myself away. About all I could think, for a good five minutes, was how glad I was that I hadn’t, after all, worn my White Light/White Heat t-shirt. There’s no doubt about it: I was well flustered.
See, Lou Reed invented me.
I am, at root, nothing but a skinny Jewish kid from the suburbs. And if I’m sitting here with my shaved head, and my sunglasses and tattoos, and twenty solid years of cherished sensual, chemical and experiential escapades under my belt, it’s because this man gave me permission to try all that on for size. If Lewis Allen Reed had not existed, had not written and sung about the things that he did, I’d probably be a flabby, thwarted associate at some Philadelphia litigation firm, bitterly serving time and wondering when life was going to kick into gear. Or — far more likely, really, given how much those songs meant to me at some very difficult inflection points in my life — I’d be dead.
Never mind that, to all accounts, he’s been lost in his own assholity for decades now, unwilling or unable to forge human connections with anyone who dares to express so much as a grunt of admiration for him. Hearing that voice a meter behind my head, muttering about utter banalities in the same monotone that once nullified my life and told me it was OK to make it anew, well, let me tell you it sent a thrill through me. And despite all the reasons I’ve enumerated above, I let it.
And then – because this is, after all, New York, and because I find my wife still more fascinating than the proximity of any number of teenage heroes – I turned my attention back to our own table, our own food and drink, the buzz of our own conversation. We finished up our meal, we retrieved our bikes, and we rode away, into the ongoing rush and joy of a life given to me in large measure by the unhappy-looking man at the table behind us.
Like many people in (what for lack of a better term I’ll call) the contemporary Western urban design space, I’m intrigued by recent developments in Russia, and very much flattered by your invitations to visit, to speak and to collaborate.
Unfortunately, I am not able to accept such invitations at present. Although I myself am not gay, many people I care deeply about do happen to be, and given the present climate of violence and intolerance toward gay and lesbian people in Russia I cannot in good conscience visit the country while such people are not safe in their own homes or persons.
Obviously a decision like mine forecloses the possibility of direct engagement and dialogue, and may have the effect of isolating LGBT activists. I profoundly regret these unlooked-for consequences, as well as the missed opportunity to strengthen the various connections I made on my previous trip to Russia, for which I remain grateful.
As the volume of requests to visit Russia has picked up significantly recently, I figure I might save us all some time and trouble by making this public statement. I apologize for any inconvenience or regret my position may occasion, thank you for your gracious understanding, and look forward to the day I can revisit this decision in the light of a changed climate.
Hey hey — I’m back home in NYC, after a superdense and superfun few days in Seoul. It’ll take me a few days to recover to the point that I have anything cogent to say, but in the meantime I thought you might like to listen to me talking “Against the smart city” with Nora Young on CBC’s Spark program this week. (There’s a couple of different versions available: the full conversation; a shorter, broadcast edit; and a podcast.)
I’ll get back at you shortly, with further details about the November 6th talk and whatnot…just as soon as I’ve recovered from this king-hell jetlag.
Here I am in Seoul, and I’m fittin’ to go have a walkabout in Itaewon.
When I first came to Korea some fifteen years ago, as a sergeant in the US Army, Itaewon was a rather tatty pleasure quarter outside the gates of the main US base, and with the base’s closure it’s now well on its way to becoming something else (though what that “something else” is is not quite clear to me yet, and may not be any clearer to the people who live here).
At any rate, I’m going to go have a poke around for a good few hours, but then I’m more or less at loose ends until my very highly planned and scheduled time begins tomorrow morning. If any of my Korean readers happens to be free and you’re up for a chat over tea or a quick 맥주, let me know in comments here — I’ll be checking in at intervals.
This is turning into a week of posts that begin “It gives me great pleasure…”, isn’t it? Well, forgive me: it does actually give me great pleasure to share with you the news that our pamphlet “Against the smart city,” the first part of The city is here for you to use, is now available for purchase in a Kindle edition. I hope you enjoy it.
Additionally, if you’re among those who pre-ordered The city is here for you to use lo those many years ago, I’d like to ship you a copy of the pamphlet gratis as a way of thanking you for your patience. If you haven’t gotten an email to that effect from me recently, I may not have your current address, so if you’ll drop me a line and let me know where I can reach you, I’ll send you your copy immediately.
You may have noticed, as well, that this is published through our Do projects initiative, which means that every penny we garner in commission goes directly toward supporting our ability to produce work like this, Nurri’s Tokyo Blues, and other inquiries at the intersection of urbanism and everyday life. So please do share widely. Many thanks!
Oh man, this one has been a close hold for so long it’s a relief to just have it out there.
I am deeeeelighted to share with you the news that I’ve been selected to receive the inaugural Mellon Fellowship at LSE Cities, and that Nurri and I and the excellent cat will be spending much of the next year in London.
My research project is called “Urban intelligences, subjects and subjectivities,” and unsurprisingly it’s about developing alternative conceptions of networked information technology in the contemporary city. Specifically, I’m interested in asking how we might…
- leverage the potential of data-gathering, analysis and visualization tools to improve a community’s sense of the challenges, risks and opportunities facing it, and support it in the aim of autonomous self-governance;
- use networked technologies to further the prerogatives so notably absent from the smart-city paradigm, particularly those having to do with solidarity, mutuality and collective action;
- inscribe a robust conception of the right to the city in all of the technological interventions proposed, including but not limited to those intended to enhance personal mobility, citizen engagement, and processes of (individual and collective) self-determination;
- and devise everyday technologies to support the open, tolerant, feisty, opinionated character we associate with big-city life, above all that quality variously described as canniness, nous or savoir faire.
It’s going to be great. I am so very pleased and honored to be doing this, and I cannot tell you how much I look forward to spending more time with all the beloved on the other side of the Black Atlantic. I want to thank everyone at the Mellon Foundation and the LSE who have helped make this a reality, and, my word, Nurri for thinking this was an interesting way to spend her 2014…but above all dear Adriana Young, without whose active instigation and encouragement this never, ever would have come to pass.
- Urban data: From fetish object to social object | 14th March 2014 at LSE Cities 27 February 2014
- Two recent interviews 24 February 2014
- TFTD 23 February 2014
- An event on urban data: Beyond the fetish object, toward the social object 30 January 2014
- On the survivors’ bond 1 December 2013
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