The kind of program a city is

I’m not, in general, a “wisdom of crowds” guy. For every gorgeously elegant distributed search of possibility space you can name, I could cite one or more irrational, mindbendingly stupid, or merely time- and resource-wasteful clusterfucks. (And when I hear the word “crowdsourcing,” well…that’s when I reach for my revolver.)

Nevertheless, given both a crisply circumscribed problem and the right kind of community, the approach can and does work; Ask MetaFilter seems to do pretty well, for example, under the right circumstances. Given that you guys are nothing if not knowledgeable, then, and that what I have on tap is a pretty specific question, I thought I might give the following a try – as a way to do an end-run around my own blindspots and prejudices, if nothing else.

I ask you: what do you feel are the most significant contemporary developments in urban informatics? The most resonant projects, the most powerful interventions, the scariest precedents?

Cast as wide a net as you please in answering. I surely have my own answers, and of course I’ll be laying them on the table, in abundant detail. But I want this book to be multivocal, as much so as any real city, and it cannot be that if the sole things covered in its pages are the projects, plans and personalities that coincide with my own prior suppositions.

To cite just one example, my (and the book’s) vision of the “digital urban” has surprisingly little overlap with that pursued here. Yet the book won’t be worth very much if it doesn’t address and engage that perspective too. So go wild. I need to know what you’re imagining when you hear the words “urban computing.”

14 responses to “The kind of program a city is”

  1. John says :

    This may be too obvious or out of scope, but I’ve throw it out there: NYCMAP and COMPSTAT. Stories about the benefits of NYCMAP are legion. Scary? That NYC nearly lost NYCMAP when the server in the World Trade Center was destroyed. Inspiring? The local GIS community response. Also, I credit COMPSTAT more than Giuliani’s jack boot for the drop in crime. Next on my list would be the fact that non-profit organizations can run powerful GIS analysis right from their desktop.

  2. Gen Kanai says :

    I think I was confusing urban informatics and urban computing. For you are they the same thing?

    If urban computing, then ground zero for Tokyo and Hong Kong would have to be Suica/Octopus Card (respectively) now available in most new mobile phones too.

    In-car/on-phone GPS is a big one for Tokyo at least.

  3. AG says :

    Gen, yeah, I do collapse those terms, in casual speech anyway. What’s the distinction you perceive?

    You will both be happy to learn that I already have good long stretches of material on all those things – although, John, can you recommend someone (with the City or otherwise) that might be interested in talking to me about NYCMAP?

  4. Christopher Fahey says :

    what do you feel are the most significant contemporary developments in urban informatics?

    Three digits: 311

  5. ams says :

    Informatics and computing would, at first glance anyway, seem to be two related but distinct things. I would define computing as the study of information technology, and then define informatics as the study of how different forms of information technologies interact as a system. Wikipedia’s not the most official of sources, but this quote from the wikipedia page on informatics is good – “informatics has computational, cognitive and social aspects, including study of the social impact of information technologies.”

    As for your question, MIT’s WikiCity Rome project seems to be the most readily-available answer. With all the talk we do about pervasive computing technology, they seem to have done the best and most public job of applying this tech to urban environments.

  6. Timo says :

    First of all, I’d personally exclude urban screens in architecture; big, flashy, unsustainable bling if you ask me :)

    There are two facets to the issue of contactless transit/payment cards that I think need attention:

    1. The inherent unpredictable nature of radio waves and leakage. We are on track to cause ourselves huge problems in the near future with badly designed and implemented RFID systems, a lot relying on security through obscurity. Although it’s super-geeky and I was initially skeptical, the RFID guardian project is intended to offer knowledge, control and auditing of radio transactions, effectively extending our senses into radio space. And of course you know I’m intensely interested in near and far fields of all sorts.

    2. The use and interpretation of data as our everyday actions become increasingly digitized/networked (essentially comes down to data mining). I heard Christian van ‘t Hof talk about this last year; his paper RFID & identity management in Everyday Life is here. The idea of being called by investigators because I was identified as being near a scene of a crime is just one illustration of this new opt-in tracking. The pieces are in place, this is the potential of the information maps created from the tiny data chunks my Suica card pings out every day.

    (Good writeups of both the RFID guardian and RFID in police investigation here)

    And all of those possibilites just from RFID tags, without considering the added layers of mobile interactions and interfaces.

  7. Timo says :

    Oh, and when talking about urban experience I’d be very skeptical about GPS as interface/input/technology. As I’m sure we’ve talked about before it simply will never work very well unless you’re in a car – in the middle of the street – (unless you’re willing to design withing the ‘seams’). Even when it does, it encourages screen-based interaction rather than ‘being in the world’.

  8. Abe Burmeister says :

    I’d start by questioning whether urban computing is worth considering as a singular thing at all. Obviously there is plenty of computing going on in most urban environments, but does it behave any different than computing going on anywhere else?

    For instance does a system for broadcasting bus arrival times electronically behave any differently in a city than it does on a rural route? Or does the integration of GIS into government effect urban spaces differently than rural or does it get used roughly the same way?

    Another way to say it is are there any emergent properties to urban computing, or can it merely be seen as the overlapping of two systems (as opposed to the emergence of one new system from the intersection?)

    One example that might happen in the near future are mesh networks like Fon, that can only really succeed with the achievement of a certain density. If they can reach that level their behavior will change drastically. But at the moment those scattered Fon hotspots are only good for those that know where to look, it makes no difference if it’s on 5th avenue or the middle of Wyoming. If however you could expect to always get a Fon signal no matter where you went in a city…

  9. Greg Borenstein says :

    On the Urban Informatics vs. Urban Computing issue, I’m just not sure I understand what the first term means at all. The second one I take to be something like examples of phyiscal/ubiquituous computing applied to the urban environment. In that space, I can think of a number of trenchant contemporary developments:

    Natalie Jeremijenko‘s work, especially her Feral Robotic Dogs piece; Graffiti Research Labs projects, especially the public impact made by their LED Throwies project in creating a new sense of urban wonder (Banksy’s work is actually an interesting close relative here even if the only computational aspect there has been the online community obsession and information spread); Aram Bartholl‘s work on the way computer interfaces to the city have altered urban experience (specifically, his Maps, Wow, and First Person Shooter projects). As I’m sure you’re aware, there are countless other such projects coming out of places like NYU ITP and similar institutions.

    Another class of project that seems really important to me in this space are the ‘worldchanging’ ones: Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab describes a series of projects using this kind of practice to accelerate leap-frogging innovation in the third world (amongst other places) and his work on creating a micro-finance system to go along with the technology seems poised to have a termendous impact. A lot of the projects in this category have to do with improving quality of life in Squatter Cities around the world (look specifically at the work of Gershenfeld’s Mumbai Fab Lab).

    This isn’t exactly a project per se, but a major issue that seems peritinent: what happened to the big free public wifi projects in American cities. Philiadelphia’s seems to have turned into a corporate giveaway; here in Portland ours has been a resounding non-event. Why hasn’t free urban wifi become a platform that’s transformed the urban computing landscape? To me that seems like one of the big mysteries in this space in recent years.

  10. ams says :

    … I really wish you’d asked this question a month or two ago, in the middle of my applications to grad schools to study this exact questions…

  11. Michael R. Bernstein says :

    Scariest precedent was after 9/11, when all of the giant video screens (used as signs) here in Las Vegas started constantly showing patriotic messages. It lasted for MANY months.

    Were they ‘mood rings’ of the zeitgeist? Instruments of conformity? Both?

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