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The City Is Here For You To Use: 100 easy pieces

On the first of January, 2008, I promised you a book about the things I saw happening at the intersection of emerging networked information technologies with urban place.

Well. It has been a long, long time coming, the book has inevitably evolved from my initial conception of it, and there’s still a great deal of work to be done. But I’m now in a position to at least let you know, in a fair amount of detail, just what The City Is Here For You To Use argues.

Please bear in mind that the following is not an outline, just an accounting of some of the book’s major propositions, in the rough order in which you’ll encounter them. As it happens, some of my favorite passages are acutely underrepresented in this accounting (particularly historical material and that concerning network technology’s implications for subjectivity and the constitution of a metropolitan, cosmopolitan self). What’s worse, a good deal of fairly carefully worked-out argumentation is here compressed into what are more or less bullet points. Unless you and I are already muy, muy simpatico, there’s no reason you should necessarily find all of the arguments as presented here convincing, nor do I expect you to. But I do want you to have a map of the line I’m going to be taking.

Without any further ado, then:

1. We find ourselves at a moment in history in which the nature of cities, as form and experience both, is under pressure from a particular class of emerging technology. The advent of lightweight, scalable, networked information-processing technologies means that urban environments around the world are now provisioned with the ability to gather, process, transmit, display and take physical action on data.

2. As a result, that which primarily conditions choice and action in urban places is no longer physical, but resides in an invisible and intangible overlay of digital information that enfolds the physical city. That is, our experiences in such places are no longer shaped exclusively, or even predominantly, by our physical surroundings, but by the interaction of code and data.

3. While it is impossible to know for certain just how much of the activity going on around us on any given street is there as the explicit result of a network sounding, it is clearly both a nontrivial and a growing percentage.

4. Our ability to use the city around us, our flexibility in doing so, just who is able to do so, will be shaped by decisions made about the technical design of objects and their human interfaces, and the precise ways in which such objects are connected to one another and made visible to the network.

5. There are many modes in which information raised to the network can re-enter the world. The most obvious is for that data to be mediated by a personal networked device, and acted upon at the level of individual choice and behavior.

6. A second clear category of interest is when this data populates urban media interfaces, which is to say the wide variety of shared, situated display and interaction surfaces of all sizes which increasingly layer urban space.

7. A third order of output is when data is expressed as a dynamic alteration to the physical form or other performative qualities of buildings, circulation networks and other infrastructural systems. We find ourselves in the liminal realm of physical form as the dynamic expression of some discrete measured condition.

8. Independent of the platform on which they’re displayed, the velocity and complexity of the data we are presented with suggests that it will increasingly be conveyed to us in the form of data visualizations that in and of themselves may be both dynamic and interactive.

9. An expansive range of everyday urban tasks currently mediated by analogue (or only passively networked) means, from physical access control to the ability to participate in economic transactions, are increasingly mediated by a single converged interface object, the smartphone…

10. …or disappearing into behavior altogether.

11. Just as Bourdieu argued that we learn the social roles and performances expected of us, in part, from our engagement with material and manufactured objects, we now learn those roles from our interactions with digital interfaces.

12. Digital placemaking tools etch away at the professions of architecture and urban planning, eroding their claim to sovereignty over the authorship of plan, movement and the capacity for transaction.

13. We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed nonbiological, nature, from drones to algorithms.

14. These inevitably have their own embedded rhetorics and immanent logics.

15. Equally, there is a determinism implicit in the software used to design spatial relations, from 3D design packages to agent-based modeling tools.

16. The grandeur in determining the conditions of urban existence increasingly resides with those who produce networked objects and services and the interfaces to them.

17. The technologies we are concerned with here achieve their effect not as discrete objects, but as functional ensembles.

18. In many ways, the capabilities and affordances associated with any given ensemble remain distressingly hard to understand, even to people exposed to them on a daily basis.

19. A strong motivator for the deployment of these technologies is the idea that they will render previously obscure, occult and opaque urban processes transparent to inquiry, and therefore actionable.

20. For a variety of reasons, technologists have tended to treat the environments in which the things they design are deployed as what Deleuze called “any-space-whatever”: abstract, generic, unconditioned spaces, containing infinite potentials for connection. But as insightful observers of technology like Paul Dourish and Malcolm McCullough have pointed out, this isn’t so, and can never be: space is always some particular space, systems are always given meaning by being situated in a specific locale and human community, with all the limitations and constraints which go along with those things.

21. Conversely, of course, the urbanists that might have supplied technologists with vital corrective insight have tended to be correspondingly far from the cutting edge of technical development.

22. These technologies are at present offered to us in two guises: the smartphone app and the smart city. Neither is satisfactory.

23. The smart city, as currently proposed, exists almost solely for the benefit of managerial elites.

24. The smart city is situated in “the proximate future.”

25. The smart city pretends to a perfect knowledge that is nowhere achievable, even in principle.

26. The smart city replicates in substance most if not all of the blunders we associate with the discredited high-modernist urban planning techniques of the twentieth century.

27. The smart city and similar schemes tend to rely on a model that hardwires or literally embeds technical devices and systems too deeply in the urban fabric to accommodate the rate of change we observe in such systems. (The componentry that affords us an informatic service layer will tend to evolve far more quickly than the structural support in which it is housed. Cities ought therefore be designed to accommodate ready maintenance and the constant swapping-out of hardware.)

28. The smart city is predicated on a neoliberal political economy, and in particular presents a set of potentials disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.

29. Most damningly, the smart city has little enough to do with cities.

30. Latent in the ideology underwriting the smart city is the notion that there is one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need, and that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically.

31. We should demand to know precisely which models of everyday life, subjectivity and experience are implicit in the smart city.

32. There is an inherent tension between technologies that achieve their beneficial effect only at network scale, and therefore benefit from or even require top-down imposition, and the imperatives and prerogatives of local autonomy.

33. The same set of underlying technical potentials that results in the (rhetorical or actual) performance of the smart city can be turned to far more interesting, vital and responsive ends. These meaningful alternatives can best be realized when organized according to the “small pieces, loosely joined” logic so decisive in securing the uptake of the World Wide Web.

34. A set of technical preconditions exists, which Anthony Townsend has identified as (free or low-cost) robust broadband connectivity; (free or low-cost) personal network-interface devices, of wide availability; fully public interfaces; a robust cloud-computing infrastructure, such that storage and information processing are pulled off of local devices; and, at the policy level, an equally robust commitment to open municipal data.

35. Of course, the data is never “just” the data, not at any point a neutral, objective quantity.

36. Firstly, we measure what can be measured.

37. As Laura Kurgan has pointed out, we measure the quantities that it is politically expedient to measure, or which signify against the metrics and success criteria that between them constitute our incentive landscape.

38. We deploy the sensors that are cheap to deploy.

39. Above all, we measure what we think to measure, looking for explanations in some places and not others.

40. There is always contingency, always a selection process, always a choice of what to gather…and always decisions made by some historical agent about how to label, characterize and represent the information that does get collected.

41. We move toward a time in which every change of state, every transaction, every mediated conversation transpiring in the cities of the developed world is, at least in principle, capable of being captured and retained by the network, assigned some meaning, and grabbed, manipulated and acted upon by some remote system.

42. Where previously human and other processes in the urban fold were lost to insight and to history, the contemporary city’s rhythms speak themselves.

43. Even seemingly innocuous facts or patterns of fact, when subjected to relational, inferential and predictive analytics, may be brought to bear against us in distressing and unforeseeable ways, such nonobvious linkages particularly leading to transitive closure and the revelation of identity.

44. These technologies redefine surveillance. It is no longer something which takes place exclusively, or even primarily, in the audio and visual registers, or, for that matter, in real time.

45. We must henceforth understand surveillance as something that can be assembled retroactively, on demand and in response to an emergent perception of need.

46. When discussing surveillance, and the use of power/knowledge to police and constrain behavior, historically most concerns have centered on the state and its capabilities. We must now extend the ambit of our concern to include both market entities and the collectivity of our peers.

47. As ever, the salient thing is not whether some technical capability exists, but whether some party believes that it does, sufficiently to act upon that belief.

48. The discrete objects that gather information and furnish it to the network are acutely sensitive to the alteration of parameters relating either to their design or their deployment.

49. As Anna Minton has observed, the presence of certain kinds of surveillant artifact in the streetscape empirically diminishes personal safety, by eroding the sense of mutual responsibility that is otherwise the hallmark of an organically functioning neighborhood.

50. New visualization tools endow us with what amounts to an extended sensorium, but only at the risk of privileging the perspectives they encode over others which may well be more salient to the situation at hand. There is a danger that our tools will seduce us into believing we understand the flow of things better than we do, or can.

51. Because predictive analytics are all too often based on straight-line extrapolations from present behavior, they can fail to account for perturbations that knock a metastable system out of its present state and into another basin of stability.

52. Networked technologies erode our long-standing conceptions of public and private space. Instead of “public,” perhaps we are better off constructing these as places one can reasonably expect one’s behavior to be observed.

53. Instead of “private,” by the same token, perhaps we can consider such to be places where behavior, once observed, has a very high probability of being correlated with one’s identity.

54. We are now in a position to see that any meaningful distinction between such spaces is collapsing.

55. The risks to individual privacy posed by the contemporary networked streetscape and the objects in it is compounded by the personal devices we carry voluntarily.

56. Mediated digitally as they now are, many of the activities that constitute the public sphere have evaporated from the public realm, leaving the destiny of our public spaces uncertain.

57. Networked objects capable of collecting information from public space can usefully be placed on a spectrum of concern, evaluated by whether they do not store captured data, store it locally in a persistent manner, or upload it to the network…

58. …allow analytics to be applied to collected data or not…

59. …what their effective range and domain of action is…

60. …whether or not meaningful provisions for consent to and opt-out of attempts at collection are present…

61. …and whether or not there is a clear and immediate public good served by the collection.

62. As presently constructed, certain such deployments represent a unidirectional and involuntary transfer of value from individuals moving through public space to private concerns unknown to them.

63. Coming to terms with the fact that a very wide range of everyday objects and surfaces in our cities will have the capacities discussed here will require a new conception of them as open informational utilities: public objects.

64. What is a “public object”? Any artifact located in or bounding upon public rights-of-way…

65. …Any discrete object in the common spatial domain, intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public…

66. …Any discrete object which is de facto shared by and accessible to the public, regardless of its ownership or original intention.

67. The data streams collected by such objects should, within reason, be open, free, accessible and extensible. You should certainly be able to draw data out of them, and — so long as those functions represent no public harm — to run other functions on top of them.

68. We might more rigorously define the aim here as ensuring that the goods produced by public object data collection are nonrivalrous and nonexclusive.

69. Given the rapidity with which software evolves, it may be exceedingly difficult to subject systems where power/knowledge is brought to bear by provisions resident in code (rather than in discrete hardware) to processes of democratic accountability.

70. Provided with such functionality, urban space itself becomes capable of performing sorting and ordering operations, including differential exclusions with little or no effective recourse in real time.

71. Increasingly, the systems we are exposed to treat us as temporary and contingent aggregates of “dividuals,” distinguished from one another and laminated together only in the act and moment of inquiry. In the absence of traditional markers of mutual in-group recognition and solidarity, it may be difficult for such dividuals to recognize that they do in fact constitute a class.

72. Cities, with their density and diversity, generate two profound goods for free: enhanced information exchange and transactive capacity…

73. …and the forging, through friction, dissensus and the constant exposure to difference, of a metropolitan self.

74. The ability to trivially search the space of a city is leaching away at the constitution of a quality we have always recognized as urban savvy or savoir faire.

75. The persistent retrievability of personal information is undermining the city’s capacity to act as a chrysalis for personal reinvention.

76. Technologies like high-resolution positioning and algorithmic facial recognition are destroying any promise of anonymity we thought the metropolis afforded.

77. Cities depend vitally on informal, illicit, even deviant economies, which are threatened by a regime of eternal, total and trivial visibility.

78. The wish to protect, preserve or even enhance these qualities, when the technologies we now have at hand would seem to cut against them in ordinary use, furnishes us with several clear design desiderata for networked urban systems.

79. Transfer of the tools of placemaking — particularly the ability to make and publish maps — from empowered elites to the general public represents a profound recasting of spatial knowing. The ability to be represented (or, to some degree, to resist representation) is now in popular hands.

80. Equally, the advent of maps that tell you where you are on them represents a profound epistemic break from the entire history of cartography to date.

81. Our conceptions of lived, bodily space and the simultaneity and capacity of time are almost casually transformed by our everyday use of networked artifacts.

82. Many of the things our new tools tell us about the places we live will be circumstances we’re not quite ready to face up to.

83. Equally, these technologies present us with the specter of new and unforeseen failure modes. Such defaults may affect us in multiple registers simultaneously.

84. The ability for any person to physically travel to and occupy any public space of the city at any time of their choosing and without confronting challenge is an absolute precondition for any meaningfully articulated “right to the city.”

85. The present panoply of heterogeneous transportation networks we encounter in most cities cannot accommodate this requirement. They must therefore be bound together in a mesh of finely-grained and fully interoperable networked services — a transmobility field. Information is the substance of this new urban mobility.

86. The ability to claim unoccupied or unutilized space, at least temporarily, by the act of creative use is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city,” most especially in so-called “shrinking cities.”

87. Present land-use policies and practices cannot accommodate this requirement. Parcels available on short-term, temporary, contingent or negotiated bases ought therefore be made discoverable via a networked service, such that both market and nonmarket service models are accommodated: space as a service.

88. The ability of citizens to enjoy the same real-time synoptic visibility over the unfolding processes of the city available to any manager is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city.”

89. Present deployments of information technology, especially as made manifest in so-called intelligent operations centers, do not accommodate this requirement. Such consolidated awareness ought therefore be made available via open, shared platforms: frameworks for citizen engagement.

90. The ability to deploy vetted and reliable real-time information in support of collective self-determination is vital to any meaningful contemporary conception of a “right to the city.”

91. Present decision-making procedures, even in places under democratic governance, cannot accommodate this requirement. We ought therefore devise and install, at the lowest reasonable level, a populist deliberative process capable of harnessing networked information, bringing it to bear on challenges before the community and focusing dissensus where it is most productive: evidence-based citizenship.

92. The frictions and constraints that act to keep novel technosocial potentials from bedding in are almost never of a technical nature, but are rather institutional, regulatory and legal.

93. Though some of these constraints may certainly exist for good historical reasons, there is at present an odd and potentially temporary confluence of interests between those invested in a neoliberal retreat of the state from the provision of services and those holding an affirmative vision of collective self-determination.

94. Given the drag generally imposed on government informatics by the unwieldy combination of lowest-bidder procurement policies, the requirement for compatibility with legacy systems and elephantine IT bureaucracies, we stand on the threshold of a world in which the ordinary citizen has recourse to data-gathering, -processing and -visualization tools at least as good as, and often considerably superior to, those which local governmental institutions can bring to bear on a problem.

95. This is especially true when citizen information-processing resources are used in the aggregate.

96. As yet, the majority of urban places and things appear to the network only via passive representations. The networked city cannot come into its own until these are reconceived as a framework of active resources, each endowed with some manner of structured, machine-readable presence, and the possibilities for interaction such provisions give rise to.

97. It is only by consciously and carefully transforming the urban landscape into a meshwork of open and available resources that we can find some upside in the colonization of everyday life by information technology. Such resources ought to be maintained as elements of a core common infrastructure.

98. If place derives its meaning from phenomenology, capacity and history, the technologies under consideration here operate in all three registers.

99. The city is not a finite state machine, something with limited configurations. Networked cities, therefore, must be understood as constituting a grammar that admits to a very large number of valid permutations. Understood correctly, any such place will be ripe with potential for interconnection, recombination and improvisatory structuration — something capable of being extended, enhanced and repurposed by its users as new potentials become available and new desires arise.

100. Considerations, then, for a city and a world newly clothed in code. If we admittedly find ourselves amidst this set of circumstances without much having planned on it, how we respond — what we do now, what cities we make of the potentials before us — is still largely up to us. Now as never before, the city is here for you to use.

Raw “power”

The raw footage from an interview I did with ZDF German television — twenty-five minutes of me talking about networked cities, if you can take it. (I myself dig the hobbled Trabi I’m slouching against.)

I hope you’ll forgive the moments of redundancy, the result of a droning airplane which kept circling overhead and necessitating the reboot of one or two questions. I have less of an excuse for the inarticulation and hand-wavy quality…but all in all it’s not too shabby an outing for someone who was freezing and had to pee pretty mightily. I hope you enjoy it.

You lookin’ at me?

I confess to being both heartened and frustrated by John Geraci’s new post on “the user experience of New York City,” which you should go take a look at. The “heartened” part is easy: I’m delighted that John raises the issue of the Passenger Information Monitor — the touchscreen interface mounted on the rear surface of a New York City taxicab’s protective partition — because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. The “frustrated” part has very little to do with John or his admirable optimism, and much more to do with the fact that, well, I have been thinking about this precise issue for a very long time, as have a great many designers more talented than I, and not all our efforts combined have been able to alter the badness of the taxi-passenger experience one whit in all that time.

As far as I’m concerned, the primary problem with the PIM is that it provides real-time GPS mapping and other situational information to passengers — but not the driver. This gives rise to an informational asymmetry that only exacerbates whatever issues of mutual mistrust and class, ethnic and linguistic-cultural tension may be latent (or explicit) in the encounter between the two parties.

Anyone who takes cabs in New York City with any frequency whatsoever will surely have noticed that a very large number of drivers are not merely recent immigrants but recent immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh. This, of course, is not a neutral pattern of fact, in either the American imaginary or the reckoning of the various Federal agencies charged with enforcing immigration law and upholding homeland security. Drivers from the Subcontinent, particularly, do absorb the suspicion and hostility of a post-9/11 public, and therefore may have some justification for a belief in otherwise hard-to-swallow conspiracy theories about the “real” reasons for the in-vehicle deployment of locational technologies. (How do I know they hold such beliefs? I know this ’cause I ask drivers for their opinions on the PIM whenever I get the chance, and the notion that DHS or some similar entity is tracking their personal movements through in-car GPS arises spontaneously about a third of the time.)

Even absent this specific consideration, the placement of the screen carries along with it a not-so-subtle implication that the driver is out to screw the passenger, and if left to their own devices will surely do so. The particular message of the PIM is that the driver needs to be supervised, their microbehavior monitored and their choices (e.g. of routing) verified from moment to moment. Compare this to the dashboard-mounted GPS navigation systems used by cab drivers in, say, Seoul, which are more clearly there to assist the driver in their negotiations with the cityscape — a primary use of such screens which does nothing to prevent their also being used to coordinate agreement between driver and passenger as to appropriate courses of action.

Finally, as John points out, and in what has to be reckoned an extraordinarily clumsy and hamfisted way of undermining any common feeling between the person in the front seat and those behind the partition, the PIM screens run ads. These are predictably loud and irritating, they load automatically and continue running unless manually shut off, and they generate revenue for the taxi operator every time they are viewed. (The passenger is provided with an Off button, but it is designed so as to be relatively obscure and hard to engage.) The cab driver is therefore incentivized to tolerate a system behavior that’s clearly detrimental to the experience of the paying customer.

These are design decisions. There is nothing inherently wrongheaded with choosing to site a passenger interface on the back of a taxi’s partition, nor is there necessarily anything wrong with providing the passenger with information that will reassure them as to the wisdom of the driver’s choices. But in each of the above cases, as a result of bad design, the interests of driver and passenger have been allowed to become uncoupled from one another, with terrible repercussions for their ability to trust and feel comfortable with the other — both locally to this specific ride, and across whatever rides take place in the future, for as long as this particular envelope of technological and design decisions remains intact.

I share John’s hope that this and the other moments that constitute stumbles in the user experience of the city can be rectified by design — I hope obviously so, given my investment of time, effort, reputation and life savings in a company intended to do just this. But I can’t help but note that we New Yorkers appear to live in a place, a time and a culture in which considerations of design are all but invariably shunted to the back of the line when budgetary and other resources are apportioned. In situations like this, I’m so often put in mind of Stafford Beer‘s observation that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” If, in all the years since Vignelli, New York City and its institutions have mostly failed to produce high-quality citizen-facing design, it’s difficult to conclude anything but that on some level, and from some party’s perspective, this is an intentional outcome.

A rough road ahead for the would-be designer of good urban user experience, then — but a clarion call to greatness, as well. Tomorrow’s Vignellis surely have their work cut out for them. But should you succeed in such tasks even partially, you’ll know that your intervention is improving the texture of someone’s life tens of thousands of times a day, every single day. By my lights, anyway, there are not a whole hell of a lot of things on Earth more worth the effort.

“Real artists ship”

It’s been a big week hereabouts. In particular, two pieces of Do projects news to share with you:

- As you probably know, Nurri and I have been running Systems/Layers “walkshops” under the Do aegis for the last year or so, in cities from 65°N to 41°S.

As we define it, anyway, a walkshop is an activity in which anywhere up to about twenty people take a slow and considered walk through the city together, carefully examining the urban fabric and the things embedded in it, and then sharing their insights with one another and the wider world. (Obviously, you could do a walkshop on any particular urbanist topic that interested you, but we’ve focused ours on looking at the ways in which networked information-processing systems increasingly condition the mretropolitan experience.)

We’ve gotten a huge kick out of doing the Systems/Layers walks, but the simple truth is that there are so many competing claims on our time and energy that we can’t dedicate ourselves to running them full-time. We’ve also been encouraged by the result of our first experiment in open-sourcing the idea, the Systems/Layers event Mayo Nissen held in Copenhagen last June.

So when Giles Lane at Proboscis asked us if we’d consider contributing to his Transformations series, we knew right away just what we’d do. We decided to put together a quick guide to DIY walkshops, something to cover the basics of organizing, promoting and executing an event.

Last Monday, with Giles’s patient support, this idea came to fruition in the launch of Do 1101, Systems/Layers: How to run a walkshop on networked urbanism as a Diffusion eBook pamphlet. As with most things we offer, the pamphlet is released to you under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, so we expect that some of you will want to get in there and repurpose the content in other contexts.

We’ll most likely be rereleasing the Systems/Layers material our ownselves in the near future, in an extended dance mix that includes more detail, more structure, and more of Nurri’s pictures. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the pamphlet, and let us know about the uses to which you put it.

- This week also saw the release of Do 1102, Nurri’s Safety Maps, a project which would have been unimaginable without the expert guidance and hard work of Tom Carden and Mike Migurski.

Safety Maps is a free online tool that helps you plan for emergency situations. You can use it to choose a safe meeting place, print a customized map that specifies where it is, and share this map with your loved ones. (As it says on the site, the best way to understand how it works is simply to get started making a Safety Map of your own.)

It’s been a delicate thing to build. Given the entire framing of the site, it and the maps it produces absolutely have to work in their stated role: coordinating the action of couples, households and other small groups under the most trying of circumstances, when communications and other infrastructures may simply be unavailable. They have to do so without implying that a particular location is in fact safer than any other under a given set of conditions, or would remain accessible in the event of disaster. And they have to do so legibly, clearly, and straightforwardly.

These are utilitarian preparedness/resilience considerations, and they’re eminently appropriate. But in the end, the site springs from a different set of concerns: in Nurri’s original conception, the primary purpose of these artifacts is to prompt us to think about the people we love and the utter and harrowing contingency of the circumstances that allow us to be together. We obviously hope people find Safety Maps useful in challenging moments, but we imagine that we’d hear about this either way — whereas it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to ever know if the site works in the way she intended it to.

Even though it was an accident of timing, Nurri also had some questions about releasing Safety Maps so soon on the heels of the Sendai earthquake/tsunami; she didn’t want us to appear to be opportunists reaping ghoulish benefit from the suffering of others. I think it was the right decision, though: sadly, there are in truth precious few windows between natural or manmade catastrophes of one sort or another. And there may be no more productive time for a tool like this than a moment in which disaster is in the news and fresh on a lot of people’s minds.

From my perspective, there’s been one other notable feature of the journey Safety Maps has taken from conception to release: but for an inversion of name, emphasis and colorway (from “Emergency Maps” in red to what you see at present), the site looks, feels and works almost identically to the vision Nurri described to me in Helsinki in October of 2009. In my experience, this almost never happens in the development of a website, and it’s a tribute both to the clarity and comprehensiveness of her original idea, and to Tom and Mike’s resourcefulness and craftsmanship.

I’m also quite fond of the thoughtful little details they’ve built into every layer of the experience, right down to the animated GIFs on the mail you get when you send someone a map. It’s just a lovely thing, and I’m terribly proud to have had even a tiny role in helping Nurri, Tom and Mike build it. Our thanks, also, to Cloudmade and the entire community of Open Street Map contributors, without whom Safety Maps would have remained nothing more than a notion.

Introducing Urbanscale

And this is what everything that came before was leading up to: Urbanscale, design for networked cities and citizens.

Urbanscale is a New York-based boutique practice committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of human-centered interaction design to the specific problems of the metropolitan environment. We aim to make cities easier to understand, more pleasant to use and more responsive to the desires of their inhabitants and other users. And yes, we’re hiring.

You can find us via the above site, or @urbnscl on Twitter.

The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of week before last immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.

As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)

In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
  • The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
  • The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
  • The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
  • Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.

This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.

For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.

Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.

There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.

The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve previously called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.

As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:

I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?

This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.

Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.

This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.

Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.

The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks, is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.

This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the call to justice, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization. (For that matter, there’s not enough space on the Internet to detail all the many ways advocacy visualizations can be cooked, just as maps and statistics were before them. Sliders and knobs, pans and zooms: these things ought never to imply that one is in the presence of Truth.)

These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for my work. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as straightforward as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.

If I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s obvious that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment I’m both honored and terribly excited to be a part of, in even the smallest way.

Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting me to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.

And with that, I think the time has come to thank you for your readership and let you know that I’m shutting Speedbird down. I posted here for just a touch over four years, and while it was a great platform and home to some wonderful conversations, I feel like my contributions are going to be taking different forms from here on in. (You may, as ever, put that word in quotes if you feel so inclined.)

There are way too many of you to thank by name, so forgive me if I do so collectively. You’ve challenged, supported, goaded, helped and taught me hugely, and you’ve been exceedingly patient as regards The City Is Here For You To Use — a book which, I will ask you to believe, is not merely a million times better for the delay, but forthcoming in the not-ridiculous future. If I have a parting wish, it’s that all of your ventures will feel as rewarding as Speedbird has and does for me. Be seeing you.

Reinventing Reinventing the Automobile

I’m halfway through Reinventing the Automobile at the moment, which I figure represents the final comprehensive statement of Bill Mitchell’s thinking about urban mobility. As you’d imagine, it’s a passionately-held and painstakingly worked-out vision, basically the summation of all the work anyone with an interest in the space has seen in dribs and drabs over the past few years; it’s clear, for example, that this is what all the work on P.U.M.A. and MIT CityCar was informed by and leading towards.

In outline, Reinventing presents the reader with four essential propositions about the nature of next-generation urban mobility, none of which I necessarily disagree with prima facie:

- That the design principles and assumptions underlying the contemporary automobile — descended as they are, in an almost straight line, from the horseless carriage — are badly obsolete. Specifically, industry conventions regarding a vehicle’s source of motive power, drive and control mechanism, and mode of operation ought to be discarded in their entirety and replaced with ones more appropriate to an age of dense cities, networks, lightweight materials, clean energy and great personal choice.

- That mobility itself is being transformed by information; that extraordinary efficiencies can be realized and tremendous amounts of latent value unlocked if passenger, vehicle and the ground against which both are moving are reconceived as sources and brokers of, and agents upon, real-time data. (Where have I heard that before?)

- That the physical and conceptual infrastructure underlying the generation, storage and distribution of energy is also, and simultaneously, being transformed by information, with implications (again) for the generation of motive power, as well as the provision of environmental, information, communication and entertainment services to vehicles.

- That the above three developments permit (compel?) the wholesale reconceptualization of vehicles as agents in dynamic pricing markets for energy, road-space and parking resources, as well as significantly more conventional vehicle-share schemes.

It’s only that last one that I have any particular quibbles with. Even before accounting for the creepy hints of emergent AI in commodity-trading software I keep bumping up against (and that’s only meant about 75% tongue-in-cheek), I’m not at all convinced that empowering mobile software avatars to bid on road resources in tightly-coupled, nanosecond loops will ever lead to anything but the worst and most literal sort of gridlock.

But that’s not the real problem I have with this body of work. What I really tripped over, as I read, was the titanic dissonance between the MIT vision of urban life and mobility and the one that I was immersed in as I rode the 33 bus across town. It’s a cheap shot, maybe, but I just couldn’t get past the gulf between the actual San Franciscans around me — the enormous, sweet-looking Polynesian kid lost in a half-hour-long spell of autistic head-banging that took him from Oak and Stanyan clear into the Mission; the grizzled but curiously sylphlike person of frankly indeterminate gender, stepping from the bus with a croaked “God bless you, driver” — and the book’s depiction of sleekly silhouetted personae-people reclining into the Pellicle couches of their front-loading CityCars.

Any next-generation personal mobility system that didn’t take the needs and capabilities of people like these — no: these people, as individuals with lives and stories — into account…well, I can’t imagine that any such thing would be worth the very significant effort of bringing it into being. And despite some well-intentioned gestures toward the real urban world in the lattermost part of the book, projected mobility-on-demand sitings for Taipei and so on, there’s very little here that treats present-day reality as anything but something that Shall Be Overcome. It’s almost as if the very, very bright people responsible for Reinventing the Automobile have had to fend off any taint of human frailty, constraint or limitation in order to haul their total vision up into the light. (You want to ask, particularly, if any of them had ever read Aramis.)

Weirdly enough, the whiff of Gesamtkunstwerk I caught off of Reinventing reminded me of nothing so much as a work you’d be hard-pressed to think of as anything but its polar opposite, J.H. Crawford’s Carfree Cities. That, too, is a work where an ungodly amount of effort has been lavished on detailed depictions of the clean-slate future…and that, too, strikes me as refusing to engage the world as it is.

Maybe I wind up so critical of these dueling visions of future cities and mobility in them precisely because they are total solutions, and I’m acutely aware of my own weakness for and tendency toward same. I don’t think I’d mind, at all, living in one of Crawford’s carfree places, nor can I imagine that the MIT cityscape would be anything but an improvement on the status quo (if the devil was hauled out of its details and treated to a righteous ass-whupping). But to paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, you go to the future with the cities, vehicles and people you have, not the ones you want. I have to imagine — have to — that the truly progressive and meaningful mobility intervention has a lot more to do with building on what people are already doing, and that’s even stipulating the four points above.

Bolt-on kits. Adaptive reuse. Provisional and experimental rezoning. Frameworks, visualizations and models that incorporate existing systems and assets, slowly revealing them (to users, planners, onlookers) to be nothing other than the weavings of a field, elements of a transmobility condition. And maybe someone whose job it is to account for everyone sidelined by the sleek little pods, left out of the renderings when the New Mobility was pitched to its sponsors.

Bottom line: this book is totally worth buying, reading and engaging if you have even the slightest interest in this topic. Its spinal arguments are very well framed, very clearly articulated, constructed in a way that makes them very difficult to mount cogent objections to…and almost certainly irrelevant to the way personal urban mobility is going to evolve, at least at the level of whole systems. And that’s the trouble, really, because so much of the value in the system described in these pages only works as a holism.

Like my every other negotiation with Bill Mitchell’s thought, including both engagements with his work and encounters in person, I want to be convinced. I want to believe. I want to be seduced by the optimism and the confidence that these are the right answers. But ultimately, as on those other occasions, I’m left with the sense that there are some important questions that have gone unasked, and which could not in any event have been satisfactorily answered in the framework offered. It may or may not say more about me than it does about anything else, but I just can’t see how the folks on the 33 Stanyan fit into the MIT futurama.

Cities and citizenship; fake security and the real thing

I saw a great Stephen Graham talk yesterday at the 24th AESOP Annual Conference at Aalto University in Espoo, called “Cities, Space, Security: The New Military Urbanism.”

I’ve enjoyed Graham’s thinking for quite awhile now, since picking his Splintering Urbanism off the shelf of late, lamented Micawber Books way, way back in the day. His argument here, in part, is that conceptualizations of urban space developed by the American, British and Israeli militaries, particularly, to support operations from Mogadishu to Gaza have begun to condition the metropolitan-in-both-senses fabric. This is a process he refers to as “Foucault’s boomerang,” and which will be familiar to any student of the intelligence community as “blowback.”

Graham calls out a litany of unhappy developments driven by this neo-Haussmannian thought, including a progressive cordoning by way of which the right of free movement in cities is slowly replaced by a checkpoint mentality, the contours of public space are subtly conditioned by simulations of blast physics, and events like the Olympics or the G20 are used to field-test techniques and strategies of urban control that eventually make their way into everyday policing.

To me, what’s really problematic about all of this is that it inscribes in our putatively urban places the fear of, and hostility to, the ordinary life of cities that completely suffuses the MOUT literature. It’s fine to assert that an infantry squad on patrol has to regard everyday urban space as festooned with “the clutter of concealment,” in which any number of threats might be secreted. But for that overwhelming majority of users of the city who do not happen to be conducting house-to-house sweep-and-clear operations…that’s just Tottenham Court Road. Or East 14th Street, or Mannerheimintie. And those are just newsstands, and parked cars, and bus shelters. That our cities should be designed for the former case over the latter strikes me as the kind of obscene argument that only someone who never loved city life in the first place could even think to propose.

This is why I had to nod in recognition when Graham described the security-industrial complex’s desperate attempt to develop video analytics that would permit algorithmic characterizations of urban “normality,” so as to simultaneously be able to recognize anomalies (“threats”). When you have any familiarity at all with the social and physical terrain of suburban northern Virginia, and the other locales in which these systems predominantly tend to be developed, you can see the punchline coming from miles away: anyone for whom Tysons Corner represents an uncomfortable concentration of human heterogeneity wouldn’t be terribly likely to recognize big-city normality if it bit them in the ass. How much less so, then, the algorithms authored by such a person?

Graham’s whole line of inquiry here is most pointedly relevant to me personally when he takes up the question of networked sensing and actuation, and situates it in the MOUT discourse as a tool to help the warfighter or security agent make sense of the chaotic urban environment. Needless to say, this is a vision that I believe must be strongly and continuously contested by those of us who understand the same sensing, reporting and actuation apparatus instead as a mechanism for citizen engagement and empowerment.

At any rate, if Graham’s still-newish book Cities Under Siege offers anything like as crisp and comprehensive an overview of the domain as this talk did, it will be well-worth picking up. (If you’re not too wrung-out and depressed by considering all of this, I also recommend Eyal Weizman’s essential Hollow Land as a companion. It’s a book-length expansion on the themes first explored in the brilliant “Walking Through Walls.”)

While we’re on the topic of citizen engagement: I’m delighted to be able to pass on to you the word that I’ve joined Code for America‘s Board of Advisors.

I think CfA is doing multiple important things at once: helping city governments and managers understand what emergent interactive technologies can do for them and their constituents; strongly countering the cheap cynicism about who government is, and what it is for, that seems to be so characteristic of our American moment; and maybe at the same time tempering the technical community’s natural enthusiasm for technical solutions with some immersion in the always charged and tangled arena of municipal politics.

This last aspect of the mission is particularly important to me. I’ve seen one or two responses to my recent work suggesting that people understand me to be arguing for the very thing I’m always so horrendified by, which is precisely the idea that social and political fissures can be patched with technology. As it happens, I don’t believe this, or anything like it, as readers with a more holistic familiarity with my output understand, but I thought the point could use some underlining. The more technologists gain a sense of the limits of their tools, and what these tools might actually be good for, the more effectively they can bring their special expertise to bear on the challenges that confront us.

What I see here, in the parallax between the picture Stephen Graham drew for us and CfA’s vision of America, is two entirely different conceptions of the complicated relationship between urban space, networked technology and “security.” Is this notion some grim, shoddy farce of heavy-handed control, sold to us by defense contractors who nurture a deep-seated distrust of city life and lives — a half-trillion-dollar sham that will eviscerate the potential of our public spaces, and even on its own terms never, ever work just right? Or is mutual security something that can only be coaxed to emerge from the difficult interplay of communities, needs and capabilities, much less totalizing in its promises but infinitely better able to deliver on them?

You know I believe it’s (long past) time to reinvigorate a sense of public life in the United States, an awareness of collective challenges, mutual obligations and shared outcomes, and for me, here, the medium is also the message. I’m looking forward to helping Code for America in whatever way I can — in no small part because I do believe that there are threats and bad actors in the world, and that collective security is best underwritten by vibrant, functioning, resilient cities. Vibrant cities…and people who love them.

Join us in Helsinki on May 22nd for a Touchscapes workshop (updated)

Just in case folks here in town are feeling neglected, fear not: we’re doing events here as well.

As part of Helsinki’s World Design Capital 2010 Ideas Forum, and collaboration with our good friends at Nordkapp, I’m delighted to announce a workshop called “Touchscapes: Toward the next urban ecology.”

Touchscapes is inspired, in large part, by our frustration with the Symbicon/ClearChannel screens currently deployed around Helsinki, how little is being done with them, and how far short of their potential they’ve fallen. Our sense is that we are now surrounded by screens as we move through the city — personal devices, shared interactive surfaces, and now even building-sized displays — and if thinking about how to design for each of these things individually was hard enough, virtually nobody has given much thought to how they function together, as a coherent informational ecosystem.

Until now, that is, because that’s just what we aim to do in the workshop. Join us for a day of activity dedicated to understanding the challenges presented by this swarm of screens, the possibilities they offer for tangible, touch-based interaction, and their implications for the new urban information design. We’ll move back and forth between conceptual thinking and practical doing, developing solid ideas about making the most meaningful use of these emerging resources culturally, commercially, personally and socially.

Attendance is free, but spaces in the workshop are limited, so I recommend you sign up at Nordkapp on the Facebook event page as soon as you possibly can. See you on the 22nd!

How to bring a Systems/Layers walkshop to your town

Crossposted with Do projects.

The response to the Systems/Layers walkshop we held in Wellington a few months back was tremendously gratifying, and given how much people seem to have gotten out of it we’ve been determined to set up similar events, in cities around the planet, ever since. (Previously on Do, and see participant CJ Wells’s writeup here.)

We’re fairly far along with plans to bring Systems/Layers to Barcelona in June (thanks Chris and Enric!), have just started getting into how we might do it in Taipei (thanks Sophie and TH!), and understand from e-mail inquiries that there’s interest in walkshops in Vancouver and Toronto as well. This is, of course, wonderfully exciting to us, and we’re hoping to learn as much from each of these as we did from Wellington.

What we’ve discovered is that the initial planning stages are significantly smoother if potential sponsors and other partners understand a little bit more about what Systems/Layers is, what it’s for and what people get out of it. The following is a brief summary designed to answer just these questions, and you are more than welcome to use it to raise interest in your part of the world. We’d love to hold walkshops in as many cities as are interested in having them.

What.
Systems/Layers is a half-day “walkshop,” held in two parts. The first portion of the activity is dedicated to a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city at hand. What we’re 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 drive the “network weather,” and contexts in which that weather affects what people see, confront and are able to do.

Participants are asked to pay particular attention to:

- Places where information is being collected by the network.
– Places where networked information is being displayed.
– Places where networked information is being acted upon, either by people directly, or by physical systems that affect the choices people have available to them.

You’ll want to bring seasonally-appropriate clothing, good comfortable shoes, and a camera. We’ll provide maps of “the box,” the area through which we’ll be walking.

This portion of the day will take around 90 minutes, after which we gather in a convenient “command post” to map, review and discuss the things we’ve encountered. We allot an hour for this, but since we’re inclined to choose a command post offering reasonably-priced food and drink, discussion can go on as long as participants feel like hanging out.

Who.
Do projects’ Nurri Kim and Adam Greenfield plan and run the workshop, with the assistance of a qualified local expert/maven/mayor. (In Wellington, Tom Beard did a splendid job of this, for which we remain grateful.)

We feel the walkshop works best if it’s limited to roughly 30 participants in total, split into two teams for the walking segment and reunited for the discussion.

How.
In order for us to bring Systems/Layers to your town, we need the sponsorship of a local arts, architecture or urbanist organization — generally, but not necessarily, a non-profit. They’ll cover the cost of our travel and accommodation, and defray these expenses by charging for participation in the walkshop. In turn, we’ll ensure both that the registration fee remains reasonable, and that one or two scholarship places are available for those who absolutely cannot afford to participate otherwise.

If you’re a representative of such an organization, and you’re interested in us putting on a Systems/Layers walkshop in your area, please get in touch. If you’re not, but you still want us to come, you could try to put together enough participants who are willing to register and pay ahead of time, so we could book flights and hotels. But really, we’ve found that the best way to do things is to approach a local gallery, community group or NGO and ask them to sponsor the event.

At least as we have it set up now, you should know that we’re not financially compensated in any way for our organization of these walkshops, beyond having our travel, accommodation and transfer expenses covered.

When.
Our schedule tends to fill up 4-6 months ahead of time, so we’re already talking about events in the (Northern Hemisphere) spring of 2011. And of course, it’s generally cheapest to book flights and hotels well in advance. If you think Systems/Layers would be a good fit for your city, please do get in touch as soon as you possibly can. As we’ve mentioned, we’d be thrilled to work with you, and look forward to hearing from you with genuine anticipation and excitement. Wellington was amazing, Barcelona is shaping up to be pretty special, and Taipei, if we can pull it off, will be awesome. It’d mean a lot to us to add your city to this list. Thanks!

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