miércoles, 26 de marzo de 2014

Urban Computing Reveals the Hidden City

Walking around a metropolis will never be the same

We want our tools to sing of not just productivity but of our love of curiosity, the joy of wonderment, and the freshness of the unknown.

Illustration: Oliver Munday

In his essay “Walking in the City,” the French scholar Michel de Certeau talks about the “invisible identities of the visible. He is talking specifically about the memories and personal narratives associated with a location. Until recently, this information was only accessible one-to-one—that is, by talking to people who had knowledge of a place.

But what if that data became one-to-many, or even many-to-many, and easily accessible via some sort of street-level interface that could be accessed manually, or wirelessly using a smartphone? This is essentially the idea behind urban computing, where the city itself becomes a kind of distributed computer. The pedestrian is the moving cursor; neighborhoods, buildings, and street objects become the interface; and the smartphone is used to “click” or “tap” that interface. In the same way that a computer, mouse, and interface are required to operate a Web browser to surf sites, the equivalent components of street computing create a reality browser that enables the city dweller to “surf” urban objects. On a broader level, the collection, storage, and distribution of the data related to a city and its objects is known as urban informatics (described by one technologist as “a city that talks back to you”).

Smartphone in hand, what can the modern-day flaneur expect to find in this newly digitized urban environment?
  • First, thanks to the prevalence of GPS data, wayfinding is giving way (so to speak) to wayshowing, interfaces that provide specific directions from here to there, and to social navigation, getting around with the help of others (avoiding traffic, for example) and then checking in with your friends when you get there. 
  • Similarly, our urban gadabout might take advantage of use-someplace technologies such as augmented reality, where physical space is overlaid with virtual data. A good example is Streetmuseum, a Museum of London app that can overlay an archive photo of a street scene onto the same scene as shown through your smartphone’s camera. Beyond augmented reality is amplified reality, where extra data is built into an object from the get-go. For example, the embedding of radio-frequency identification or near-field communication technologies in street objects enables the creation of locative media (also called location-based media). These situated technologies contain data about a specific location, which is then beamed to devices as they come within range, an exchange known as a situated interaction. An example is the sound garden, where designers assign sounds to public places, which users can then listen to using Wi-Fi–enabled devices.
There is, sadly, the ever-present danger that advertisers and hucksters will take advantage of these technologies to turn the city into a giant billboard. But to the technologists and social scientists at the forefront of urban computing, the goal is enhanced civic engagement. To that end, where once the ideal of pervasive computing was to create seamless, unnoticeable technology, today’s urban computing designers want to build seamful interfaces, whose visibility encourages users to interact directly with systems. Curatorial media allow for urban data curation, the careful collection of stories—histories as well as facts and figures—using technologies called urban annotation systems. Since data are both curated and disseminated in such systems, this is known as read/write urbanism.

Is the urban computer a good thing? Well, it’s certainly an inevitable thing, so I wouldn’t waste too much breath complaining about it. Think about a regular PC: You can turn it off, or you can use it for fun or for productivity. The urban computer is no different. You can ignore it (turning a city off is problematic), or you can use it to become a more attentive, engaged, and concerned citizen. It’s a tool. Make it sing.

Urban Computing, Part II

The Language of Smart Cities

As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

Illustration: Oliver Munday

In a previous column, I ran through some words and phrases associated with urban computing, where
  • the city is a computer, 
  • the streetscape is the interface, 
  • you are the cursor, and 
  • your smartphone is the input device. 
This is the user-based, bottom-up version of the city-as-computer idea, but there’s also a top-down version, which is systems-based. It looks at urban systems such as transit, garbage, and water and wonders whether the city could be more efficient and better organized if these systems were “smart.” That is, if we applied principles of information technology and connectivity to the various processes that make up the urban infrastructure, we would end up with a smart city.

The need for more urban smarts seems obvious:
Cities have finite (and shrinking) budgets, and the resources that make a city run—including water, energy, clean air, and land—are precious. So the move from the current urban environment to the digital city includes upgrading components and retrofitting so-called smart technologies. For example, many urban homes have had their gas and electrical meters upgraded to smart meters that enable not only remote monitoring and reading but also smart pricing (or time-of-use pricing), where costs rise or fall depending on whether usage is on- or off-peak. On a larger scale, these newfangled meters are part of the smart grid, which uses real-time data and analytics to match energy production with demand, monitor equipment, and control supply.

Big data plays a big part in smart urbanism because city managers are starting to create a networked city that deploys digital sensors and other electronic infrastructure. These generate massive amounts of information not only on energy use but also on traffic, transit, and other civic data. The goal is the real-time city, which enables planners and administrators to make decisions and implement policies based on current data and trends. Call it city 2.0.

Eventually (so the blue-sky thinking of your average civic hacker goes), these sensors, monitoring devices, and other elements of urban technological infrastructure will cover almost every available public surface. The result will be the ubiquitous city (often shortened to u-city), where every urban system and resource will make its data available for monitoring, analysis, and control. This transphysical city will enable new services to be implemented seamlessly over the network or via the g-cloud (government cloud), a computing model sometimes called city-as-a-service.

The ultimate smart city is one that’s built from the ground up with civic tech goals in mind. The forerunner here is the Garden City model proposed in the late 19th century by Englishman Ebenezer Howard, which features parks, retail, residences, and industry organized in concentric circles. The modern equivalent of a built-from-scratch smart city is called a cyburg, and examples include:

These cities are planned for efficiency and are wired for data and services—cityware—all controlled by an urban operating system. Citizen access to these services is networked and ubiquitous, thanks to the implementation of civic tech.

The problem with these soft cities (or e-cities) is that, like Howard’s Garden City, the benefits accrue only if the whole thing remains under the strict control of an overarching authority that dictates things such as land use and density. But, as urban critics such as Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and more recently Richard Sennett have pointed out, a city is almost by definition an organic entity that constantly changes and evolves. To define this aspect of urbanism as a bug that must be fixed strikes at the soul of the city, because it sees commercial and individual freedom as the problem, not the solution. And if the increasing ubiquity of networked monitoring devices—particularly CCTV cameras—is combined with databases and software that enable easy searching and analysis, then the time of the superpanopticon is nigh. That kind of city doesn’t sound very smart to me.

This article originally appeared in print as “The City as System.”

ORIGINAL: IEEE Spectrum (Part I)
By Paul McFedries
27 Jan 2014

IEEE Spectrum (Part II)
By Paul McFedries
26 Mar 2014

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