Appy Land or Geekistan? The Open Questions of Open Data

Under Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s watch, the way we engage with government agencies is set to go digital by default.

Speaking via prerecorded video at the GovInnovate conference in Canberra last week, Minister Turnbull issued an unequivocal call to action to the Australian Public Service to improve the quantity of government services delivered online, and enrich their quality, depth and level of engagement with citizens.

“Government 2.0” is a key plank in the Coalition’s Policy for E-Government and Digital Economy. It puts technology at heart of citizen engagement and will accelerate Australian public sector efforts to “engage online, make agencies transparent and provide expanded access to useful public sector data”.

On a practical level we’ll be seeing the introduction of application programming interfaces (APIs) for government websites – which, in plain terms, allows software programs to talk to each other, allowing developers to turn data into handy apps – and a re-booting of efforts to release government data in open, machine-readable formats.

Having signed up to the Open Government Partnership in May of this year, Australia is committed to promoting open data-led innovation, following, albeit rather tardily, the example of the US which now boasts almost 200,000 open government data sets and a thriving digital marketplace in the repackaging of open data as software service.

Australia’s data.gov.au now has a paltry 50 data sets, the minister noted.

Data consumption

The Seattle-based data infomediary Socrata is a good example of the kind of company to have emerged from this open innovation agenda. For a fee, they’ll host open data for public sector clients, adding new visualisation and mash-up tools that let citizens or developers to mix and match data, adding different contexts to “socially-enrich” the data.

Want to see this data in a map? Choose this view. Add some local government boundary info? Add this set. Want to appify the data? Developer, here’s your API.

The company calls it “the consumerisation of data” and, judging by the volume of new recruits to the company this year, there are no shortage of government clients signing up for the services.

Australian Government Chief Information Officer Glenn Archer, also speaking at the GovInnovate conference, wants companies like Socrata and locals like Nick Maher (the developer behind Sydney public transport app TripView) to “build their own solutions for the way citizens can interact with government”.

Opening up government data sets means there are new marketplaces for the design of public services, which in turn means governments can benefit from the tech-savvy skills of digital entrepreneurs. Don’t leave it up to a risk-adverse public servant to navigate the digital ecosystem – let the tech experts to the job.

(To find examples of an open data driven marketplace at work in Australia today, look no further than your chosen weather app, which accesses its data from Bureau of Meteorology website and repackages it with nice graphics and the like.)

On the agenda

It’s hard not to get excited by the promise of a more enriched and open digital ecosystem that makes the way we digitally interact with governments a whole lot better. But as we stand at the cusp of this open data-driven transformation, we should also take a deep breath and consider how “openness” is being used to drive public sector change.

Belarusian Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here, is not convinced the benefits of the open data agenda extend much beyond the “Kingdom of Geekistan”. He worries the level of political debate around terms like “open government” and “open data” has sunk to such a level that “just carrying your phone around might be an act of good citizenship”.

Drawing on the work of American legal scholar Julie Cohen, Morozov suggests the “information-processing imperative” has become so dominant it’s now synonymous with a “single, inevitable trajectory of forward progress”.

One of the problems with the way “openness” is treated in the Gov 2.0 agenda is that it’s never quite clear whether “open” is a means or an end.

If it’s a means to an end – for example, the interoperability and therefore resilience of software systems – then clearly this is not the same openness as government transparency, and will have little effect on the process of reducing government secrecy or corruption.

An “openness” that lets digital entrepreneurs manage the design and delivery of government services may improve usability, but it’s also a radical revisioning of the role of the public sector – a shift towards what Irish tech guru Tim O’Reilly coined “Government as Platform”, or what others might simply call “privatisation”.

If the “open government” agenda has more ambitious goals like government transparency and democratic participation, then this will require more than a healthy digital ecosystem. Opening up data alone does not necessarily equate to citizen engagement, appified or otherwise.

Morozov, who visited Australia recently as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, noted wryly in To Save Everything, Click Here:

For all we know, since the Nazis had an enviable train system, they’d be all for making their train data universally accessible.
While the influence of the “open innovation” agenda grows ever stronger, still the value and promise of “openness” remains an open question.

As our public servants and policy makers embark on this new phase of service design, reinventing government websites as platforms for co-creation, digital entrepreneurship and innovation, let’s not forget that citizen engagement is more than a double-click away.

First appeared on The Conversation, 3 December 2013


Open access to publicly-funded culture? A Retroflective post #TBLdownunder

Fatima Measham is today credited with the top tweet for the Tim Berners-Lee Down Under Tour (otherwise known on Twitter as #tbldownunder). It reads:

Aside from inventing the world wide web, that’s pretty much the core of Berners-Lee’s message, and undoubtedly the motivation behind Pia Waugh’s hard work in bringing him to Australia this month: to ensure the web stays open and accessible to all.

At his City Talks speech to a packed audience of nerds and wanna-be nerds at Sydney’s Town Hall last night, Berners-Lee explained how in 2009 he spent most of his time trying to persuade people to be more open with the way they were publishing their data online.

Why Open Data?

Scientists, he explained, shouldn’t just publish articles, they should also publish the data behind the articles, because then this data can be better used by others. A published journal article is, in the language of the web, not a very useful piece of data, unlike raw data which can be linked through open data protocols (which go by curiously impenetrable sounding names like ‘Triple RDFs). That’s the logic of the Semantic Internet, a set of standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) to describing common data formats that enable the contents of published articles, stories, media and so forth to be properly describable in common languages, and in other words able to be re-used, shared and connected to other stories, articles, media, data published online.

It’s a re-assertion of the fundamental values of the internet, and, as Berners-Lee has said, “it’s huge: When you link data, not just documents, you get this really huge power out of it”.

So Berners-Lee was brought to Australia to bring us this word: the word of open, sharable data.

Open data policy hits academia

The shift towards open publishing formats is now well under way here, with the Australian Research Council announcing in December that publicly-funded research needs to be available through an open access journal within 12 months of publication. The ARC’s Open Access Policy released in January this year, is huge. It is huge not because it is going to completely and immediately re-write the rules of academic publishing (it won’t), but because it acknowledges that work directly funded by the taxpayer should be accessible to those who funded it: taxpayers.

Note the underlying logic here: to maximise the benefits of Australian investment in research for wider public benefit.

At this point we can see how the open data movement is not only about machines being able to better read and re-use data from other machines, but also about giving the public access to the outcomes of public investment. It’s a kind of marriage of convenience between nerdy programmers who want to be able to build better programs, and advocates of good public policy in the digital age who want to promote Australia’s culture of innovation and learning (of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

Recognition that the public have the right to access publicly-funded works has all kinds of ramifications for public investment programs across many diverse spheres, not only university research. You may care to cast your mind over the many different ways in which government funding is explicitly provided for the objective of generating private gains for commercial enterprise.

But you may also care to wonder how this concept of the public accessing publicly-funded works might apply to our cultural and media organisations. The ABC, for example.

What about Our ABC?

In 2012 the ABC celebrated its eightieth birthday. For 80 years the ABC has been funded by government to create radio programs, and then also television programs, and then also digital programming, that informs, entertains and educates all Australians. It is our national treasure, and indeed it is the ‘public square’ of our digital life.

The public value of the ABC stretches not only to its central place in the contemporary media landscape, but also to the public value of its past programming: the documentation of Australian life over 80 years which has captured the extraordinary changes to Australia’s way of life during the twentieth century and beyond.

I’ve had the pleasure of researching Sydney’s history using the ABC’s archives, and I have experienced first hand the wonder of listening to the euphoric sounds of VP Day in 1946 as recorded by Talbot Duckmanton in Martin Place, the chants of the Vietnam protesters as they congregated outside the Commonwealth Buidling (now Chifley Square) in 1968, the crackling of John Curtin announcing a war loan campaign at the Sydney Town Hall in 1942; the thousands and thousands of voices of everyday Australians, now passed from this world. I’ve been able to integrate these sounds into new works, to reflect on their place in the contemporary spaces of Sydney today, to share them with others.

But this first hand experience of exploring, sharing and re-using recordings capturing moments in Australian history is not an option for most Australians. The ABC has no remit to make its publicly-funded content available to the public after its initial broadcast. In the majority of cases you need to be a producer working for the ABC, or you need to pay sums of money to access an archival program. If you want to use a piece of this public recording in another work (that’s most likely also been publicly-funded) you will usually not only need to get permission from the original creator of the work (fair enough) but you will also need to pay the ABC for the ability to access and license the recording. ABC Commercial will not give access to highly sought after recordings easily. The same process will usually apply to other publicly-funded ‘memory institutions’, so behind the scenes we get these situations whereby publicly-funded institutions charge each other fees to access each other’s publicly-funded works.

It’s not an ideal situation but it’s a state of play cultural producers and historians get used to, in a way. There are small scale initiatives designed to open up access but they lack organisational reach and, importantly, secure funding. But need it always been this way?

Digital Public Space: Towards a better cultural archive

The BBC has spent the last five years working hard to address this very issue with other UK cultural organisations like the British Library, the British Museum and the British Film Institute. Together these organisations have been collaborating to find the best way to provide the widest possible access to the complete range of digitised material that they create or curate. The initiative is called ‘Digital Public Space‘.

Just imagine: an online space in which much of our publicly-held cultural and heritage media assets and data can not only be found, but also connected together, searchable, machine-readable, open, accessible, visible and usable in a way that allows anyone – individuals, institutions and machines alike – to build new stories, add new material or context to or connect to other media, indexed and tagged to the highest level of detail. You can start to see in the image below that there’s been a little bit of thought put into how the public can access digital cultural content more easily.

The Digital Public Space initiative has been spearheaded by Tony Ageh, BBC Archives Controller and the man credited with the creation of the BBC’s iPlayer, the model for ABC’s iview. Like Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web, this is a hugely ambitious and is no less than about remaking the Internet. The work put into redefining access to our public culture today may be hard, but the public benefits are, to paraphrase Berners-Lee, limited only by our imagination.

We need to move beyond thinking about open access as destroying value, through lost licensing opportunities, and start thinking about how new open access models will create new value.

It may not be for everyone, this desire to not only read about the people and events of the past, to also have the sense of experiencing and engaging with them directly online, through original documentary recordings – with history as it has unfolded.

But we should have no doubts that our children will expect to have their history and their public culture at their digital fingertips.

Not taking steps to be more visible, sharable, re-editable and indexable by tomorrow’s digital natives surely risks diminishing the value of our cultural institutions for future generations?

Image credit: Rory Fink: Reflections in a Distorted Landscape. From the RetroFlective exhibition.

David Hockney, Foye Looking at Brooklyn, 1982. Sourced from Lawrence University Communications on Flickr.

Rewind: The Best of 2012

So it’s the end of another big year. With a view to stamping out any creeping amnesia about the year that was, I thought I’d set aside some poolside time in Sanur to reflect on the personal highlights of 2012. Some of my own making, some not so. And soon to follow, some ruminations on the year ahead, in anticipation of Mayan foibles. But if it is the end of the world as we know it, I’m feeling fine.

The Bests

1. Mapping Emergencies with the ABC

The year commenced with a fast and furious digital project at ABC, where I led a digital emergencies strategy across the divisions of ABC Innovation, News and Radio with a view to testing out the use of maps and social media to improve emergency communications. The summer of 2012 in Australia saw the tail end of the La Nina weather pattern, so it was a season of flooding on the East Coast, and bushfires in the South and West Coasts. Clearly the area of disaster communications is only going to grow in importance over the coming century, and working with the ABC to explore new reporting practices for digital emergencies coverage – addressing in particular the thorny issue of appropriate uses of social media and the trickeries of geo-spatial reportage – sparked new interests in fields I’d not previously known very much about: crisis communications & data visualisation, surely to be front and centre concerns for many a media organisation over the coming years. Working in digital emergencies at the ABC meant the stakes were high – you can’t afford to get too much wrong, even when you’re piloting new things, when you’re the broadcaster people turn to in times of need. Challenges were met with rewards, not least the chance to work again with some of my favourite people, and learning about Twitter not just as a micro-blogging medium but as a tool for mapping & analysing socio-spatial behaviours.

Website: ABC Mapping Emergencies

2. Bringing the Australia Hotel back to life

I first dreamed of re-inscribing the sites and sounds of the old Australia Hotel (1891-1971) back in 2008, when I was directed to some original ABC reportage of the Hotel’s auction in 1970 by documentary researcher Wendy Borchers. My fascination with this long gone hotel had less to do with wishing Sydney still had this gaudy old relic, essentially a rip-off of American luxury hotels constructed to attract cashed up tourists of the late nineteenth century, and more about practising new ways of experiencing historical moments in time using a range of spatial media platforms. Re-imagining digital archives in site-specific ways has long been a fascination of mine, and this project enabled a bunch of ideas I’ve been working with for many years make their way out of the dusty halls of the academy onto the public (though indeed rather dormant) stage that is Martin Place, Sydney.

Being Sydney’s premier tourist, entertainment and cultural centre for some eight decades, the Australia Hotel is today not a built artefact to wonder and wander about, razed as it was in 1970 to make way for the towering MLC Centre, but a rich archive of sounds, images, drawings, paintings, magazines, films, broadcast recordings and more. Working with this site provided the opportunity to pratice a public history in which it is the recorded heritage of a space that creates the frame for an encounter with the past. That was the idea anyway. So often (too often?) it’s only by ‘visiting’ monuments, museums, or miraculously preserved relics of the past that we allow ourselves to think about how previous lives were lived in a place; in a digital age this experience need not be confined to that which remains, through luck or otherwise, part of the fabric of everyday life. This needn’t, I hope, mean memoralising the entire landscape, but my hope is that different places of importance to the way we live our lives today might come more clearly into view.

Actuality recordings of Sydney’s changing landscape have, as evidenced by this website, been a fascination for some years now but Last Drinks was the first time I’d been able to re-inscribe many found recordings on such a public stage, through the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival. The project meant not only mounting large scale projections onto the buildings in and around Martin Place, but also the opportunity to work again with the incredible treasure trove that is the National Film and Sound Archives (and yes, to get my hands rather dirty with that other Trove), to meet and work with lots of fabulous Sydney-siders young and old who shared important connections to the old Hotel, and to delver ever deeper into the often hidden cultural geographies of the city of Sydney, which I fell in love with all over again. The highlight of the decade, not only the year.

Project site: Last Drinks: One More Round at the Hotel Australia

3. Collaborating with MK.

Frankly, my husband Michael Killalea is one of the best designers I know. The good ones, I find, are those who are thinkers first, whose depth of engagement with an idea brings just the right formal expression to the original gesture of a thought or an inkling. Reminds me of that quote about contemporary art: ‘Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.’ A good graphic designer makes you think you came up with that concept all by yourself. A not so good one thinks they know something you don’t know.

This year Michael and I formalised our collaborative inclinations through the creation of ESEM Projects, our platform for public installations and creative archives projects like Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks. The production skills Michael has been flexing on set with his creative agency killanoodle have geared him up to shift into installation design, giving my somewhat abstract ideas about experiential history a life out on the streets. Michael also has a background in film, clearly evidenced by his visual directing skills which saw the filmic sequences of these recent installations offer up more poetic than didactic experiences of the past. The best bit is I never know what trick this visual inventor is going to come up with next.

Project site: ESEM Projects

4. Listening to Julia Holter

Music accompanies everything I do; new music is like yoga, freshening the spirit and stretching the limits of the mind. Julia Holter’s Ekstasis spurred this mind into action (or was it spirit into flight?) more times than I’d like to admit; her way of pulling together different sound sources into beautiful constructed adventures is inspiring not just as a way of escaping the everyday-literal, but because the pathways she’s carving are being followed ever so closely by the big boys of the contemporary music scene, from Pitchfork to The Wire to Boomkat and no doubt beyond (but the beyond bit is pretty much unknown to meâ?¦). Listening to music likes this asks all of us: are we really doing the best we can do?

Julia Holter: Ekstasis

5. NZ National Digital Forum

I’d never been before, but I’d heard it was good. Now I know why. Delivering a Keynote at this most esteemed of conferences was a major highlight not just for the chance it gave me to pull a bunch of recent projects into a longer trajectory of thinking about the contemporary spaces of archival practice, but also for re-energising my interest in the potentials of cultural heritage in the digital age. Another perk: I realised during my stay that I’d adopted a bit of a depressed mindset about innovations in cultural heritage – a result, I’m all too well aware, of these days of fiscal austerity. Days of Keeping the Budgets Balanced; days when there is No Money for Anything Interesting to Happen in the Cultural Sector. While we are indeed living in lean times, the chance to get amongst a big bunch of good folk committed to making the most of digital collections for the public good helped revive my interest in the creative potentials of digital archives. I realised this year I’ve felt pretty alone on this path for many years now: if you’re into digital things you’re probably not thinking about the past, pre-1996 anyway, right? But now I know there are kindred spirits all around the world who aren’t only wanting to make as much money as they can out of their start up digital agency, but are actually interested in using these tools for something beyond their own hip-profit (ok that was a typo but it works no?). I suppose you could say this was the year I belatedly realised those digital types in the ‘GLAM’ (galleries, libraries and museums) sector are doing some of the more innovative work in digital culture, and that I’d very nearly fallen asleep at the wheel. Phew, thanks #NDF2012!

Website: National Digital Forum 2012

Other notables

Other notables include reading Thinking the Twentieth Century (Snyder & Judt) and wanting to dog-ear every page, finally getting around to reading Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian (thanks to an excellent second hand bookshop in Wellington), watching my baby Annika become a rock star dancer before my very eyes, seeing Lena forming letters all by herself, cycling around London with 40,000 others at the one intersection (yes! cycling roolz!), gasping at the tree-visions of David Hockney (in the book, sadly not at the exhibition). Likewise, there are disappointments & frustrations, skepticisms and tears, all of which make up a year of stubborn attempts to try to do things a bit differently. As Bjork said once “when you say one thing, you make another thing more hidden”, and along these lines I’m often struggling with the confounding limits of time (hours in a day); with juggling motherhood while wanting to Make Stuff Happen.

And finally: the awarding of the Turner Prize to Elizabeth Price for her video work The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979. ‘I’m interested in social, historical stories and think art is the way to remember them’, mused Price. To me the most compelling thing, from the short grab of the 20-min piece I’ve gleaned so far, is its use of sound: sharpening the vision into focus, then spacing, then refocusing again through a snap of the fingers, an all too personal, intimate gesture that allows for new meanings to form out of a bewildering, too-familiar sea of news footage. This gesture seems to me the best that art can be today; revealing the over-saturated medium of YouTube quality TV footage back to us as the very texture of our collective minds, not just abstract data or mediocre reality or terrifying horror but also, just maybe, the spaces of the sublime. That was how I experienced Christian Maclay’s The Clock too, a work that used the everyday – literally, as a 24 hour period – as a frame through which to reveal our televisual memories, shocking these hidden moments from our past into view, as familiar as the house you grew up in. ‘Rather than be seen as builders of digital interfaces, we should also be viewed as artisans of emotional experiences’ wrote Tim Wray when reflecting on the NDF, a sentiment strengthened for many by Courtney Johnston‘s moving presentation given at the NDF on the value of emotional engagement with digital collections, prompting tears and rapturous applause, both in the tent and across the Twittersphere for many days beyond (that’s years on earth right?). That this concept of emotional interfaces took such a strong hold on an audience of lifelong digital practitioners suggests to me that a world of big data and situational awareness ain’t only going to make us cleverer.

Best we finish off with Fran Lebowitz (with thanks to Jenny Diski:

If, while watching the sun set on a used-car lot in Los Angeles, you are struck by the parallels between the image and the inevitable fate of humanity, do not, under any circumstance, write it down.

Point taken.

Feature image reference: David Hockney, Foye Looking at Brooklyn, 1982. Sourced from Lawrence University Communications on Flickr. “Numerous individual images are collaged into one scene indicating multiple perspectives and the passage of time.”


At the National Digital Forum

New Zealand’s National Digital Forum has quite a reputation among cultural heritage & museum types internationally, for the quality of its speakers and the integrity of its focus – and for good reason. This is a place that values speculative thinking, applauds technical prowess as much as imaginative concepts, and celebrates the work of big institutions with big budgets as much as small, community-driven initiatives. Like, wow!

I was invited to give a Keynote Presentation to the 2012 NDF when I was doing some consultancy work for Historypin earlier this year. Given the Forum’s reputation this was a great honour, but it also gave me the chance to reflect on where my own practice is heading. One gets so caught up in the day to day busyness, it’s always a treat (and challenge) to step back and consider the broader currents of change and chance.

Having now completed two fairly large scale public installations for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival, I was quite conscious of how energised I’ve been by the chance to work in a more collaborative, community-oriented way, rather than being led purely by my own research pursuits. Working as part of this public platform makes you accountable in different ways – one needs to be able to speak to your city, not just your peers. It’s also become increasingly clear to me how archives-led installations can act as interventions for community-led urban activation and place-making, as much as they can help to showcase the possibilities of creative and digital archives innovation. More on this below.

In the end, attending and presenting at the NDF was inspiring in so many ways – probably the enthusiasm and commitment of the people I met was the biggest highlight, but also inspirational was the chance to witness just how much change is sweeping the cultural heritage sector, and how ripe this time is for new creative practices to emerge.

Having said that, it was also interesting to hear the war stories of some attendees and presenters who, it appears, seem to experience a fair amount of institutional malaise and perhaps downright disinterest from within their organisations about how audiences might engage with a museum or library through digital platforms. I’d like to hope this is not the predominant experience of the Forum’s attendees. The opportunity to present again at the Auckland Museum with Nate Solas from the Walker Art Museum in fact highlighted some really exciting digital strategies being developed or implemented at the present time.

Below are the slides alongside the associated notes I spoke to during the presentation. This was one of the first presentations I’d given to a very active Twitter audience (yes I’ve been quiet for awhile), so I’m embedding some of the commentary along the way as well, just for, umm, fun.

Past Forward: Speculative adventures in the city’s archive

Hello, Iâ??m Sarah Barns, I live in Sydney, and I work independently as a digital producer and researcher at the moment. ESEM Projects is the collaborative venture Iâ??m Co-Directing, partnering with visual artist and designer Michael Killalea. We make site-specific installations about the history of a place. We draw extensively from both public and community collections, we use lots of different platforms, some of them digital, some ‘post-digital’, we work sometimes for clients and sometimes initiate our own projects.

I realised the other day that Iâ??m one of these people whose professional lives has been completely shaped by the Internet. My first real job was working on policy advice for the Minister for Communications & IT advising on broadband applications. That was about 12 years ago and we were telling the minister about all the amazing things that were going to happen when people got smartphones and pdas and so forth.
Since then Iâ??ve worked for the ABC, the Arts Council and helped set up something called the Creative Industries Innovation Centre and more recently have been doing work with Arup.

Across all these areas Iâ??ve been thinking, researching and advising on how digitisation is going to impact our lives, our artists, our media landscape, our cities & regions. But while Iâ??ve been working and advising people on the near futures of technology, Iâ??ve become increasingly interested in how the near futures of digital technology is changing our relationship with the past, and specifically with how we come to experience a historical moment, in time and place.

Iâ??m therefore a bit of a different creature of person here in the sense that I donâ??t work for a museum or gallery or archive. Iâ??m an independent producer and researcher who approaches collections as active resources that help me to tell stories about the city, creating engaging and immersive experiences of place and space. I therefore have the pleasure of approaching archive collections not as objects to define; I donâ??t have to worry about meta data and promoting audience access. I am interested more in the experience of a particular recording, and how we use different mediums of today’s digital technology to creatively promote and encourage different interactions with past moments in time.

The notion that weâ??re living in the midst of a big data but also, dare I say, â??big archivesâ?? phase has been touched on a bit. We have this sense that we are living through a digital deluge â?? how do we we make our way through it?

I believe one of the points raised here at the NDF in 2011 was a paraphrase from Melvyn Bragg that â??the 20th century has released us into history through technologyâ?
Quote: â??We call what we do harvesting or cataloguing, digitising or preserving, data visualising or crowd-sourcing, community management or customer service, or whatever the latest round of restructuring has deemed our job to involve. But what weâ??re really doing is working with people to create and share back our collective and collaborative history.â?
Thereâ??s lots being said here, but one them surely is that we have a whole lot of new ways of interacting with the past. We we may previously felt a bit like we could peer through a window into another world, from a contemporary, fairly static vantage point, we now have this way of working with the past that is probably more akin to a remix, blending, curating, repurposing, re-using.
What this means, in some ways, is that we have this much more direct experience of a past moment in time – not only photographs made with incredibly high resolution – but actuality footage being made increasingly available. Not only is it available to see, we can also re-contexualise it in different ways.

An example is this original video footage of London just after the London Blitz, uploaded by the Imperial War Museum to YouTube.

Original video on You Tube

Here we have the same video geo-tagged on Historypin, capturing the London Blitz, to see it in Streetview.

The Historpin platform enables us to view the past within the present using Google’s streetview capabilities, fading in and out of time. This is free for anyone to use and publish to. Amazing. On one level it’s a great example of what can be done with Google Maps these days. On another level, I think it’s also this really quite incredible way of experiencing a past moment in time.

As well as actuality footage from the 20th century, we also have every kind of television show that ever existed becoming available. Along with this, we have this sense that we are making these kind of deep, emotional connections back in time with our former selves. The directness and immediacy of the platform encourages this idea.

Here we have Bert & Ernie, who want to say hi. Say hi to Bert & Ernie! They speak to that former you, as though you were still in that moment, at home watching television and eating peanut butter sandwiches. Hi Bert

Is there something also about the popularity of Instagram and particularly the nostalgia filters, that weâ??re playing out this archive fever and letting it shape the way we capture our present day lives? Iâ??m not sure â?? is it just that the colour filters are better?

All the scanning, geo-tagging, harvesting, crowdsourcing â?? itâ??s not only a digital practice, itâ??s not just pinning a recording to a google map, itâ??s also a quite altered way of engaging with recordings, not just as objects but as experiences, ingredients, resources for making things with.

Iâ??ve come to be thinking a lot about this increasing dexterity of time in the digital age, as a kind of Past Forwarding through and within time-spaces. Is this experience of the past in the digital age that fascinates me and has driven much of my work these last few years.

Today I’ll be presenting on these projects, but before I do I just wanted to give a bit of background about the different approaches I combine here.

In terms of the conceptual terrain, there are these four key areas – essentially questions for interrogation.

1. Archives. As I’ve been saying, I approach archives as a kind of landscape of noisy events, and as a way of trying to get inside and experience a past moment. I use actuality recordings to try to create an approach to the past that is less about telling an overarching narrative and more about providing experiential interactions with a particular moment in time. When it comes down to it I suppose Iâ??d like to create a more affecting, emotional sense of a space in time, rather than a more objective view of time.

2. Digital A particular orientation towards the digital. Specifically interested in how the digital impacts our experience of space and place. This connects to a whole lot of location-based technologies, locative arts and also the concept of responsive environments.

3. Place. A lot of the projects Iâ??ll be talking about have been led by the meaning of a particular place. More often than not theyâ??re driven my an interest in telling a story about a particular place itâ??s broader meaning, to a person, to a city, to an idea. Iâ??m one of these unfashionable people who thinks that places actually define us in important ways, Iâ??m not only a global citizen, Iâ??m also someone who lives in Sydney and is from a place called Fremantle and these are not incidental to my character. This interest in place means I tend to bring a geographic angle to my interest in historical collections.

4. Public space. Pretty much all of these projects have been created to be experienced in the public domain. I’m interested in doing things in public. I have post graduate degree in urbanism and mostly I gravitate towards sites that tell something about the history of urbanism in the 20th century. And I’m interested in how it is that we define the ‘digital public space’ of today’s media age.

I have a lot of favourite quotes, and a lot of people inspire me, but this one is one from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) reflects pretty fundamentally what Iâ??ve been trying to do with place and archives.

Calvino when he wrote this was interested in how cybernetics was changing thought, there is a theory that Invisible Cities was exploring a kind of hyper textual version of the city. Apt in so many ways. I think of this quote as a reminder that while we may try to map objectively the dimensions of a place, we will always be caught out by what we miss when we miss the temporal shifts and dimensions of a place that give it character.

Today this idea of invisible cities is oftentimes expressed in terms of the language of visualisation. We live in a world that is part physical, part digital. What are the kinds of visualisations techniques we can use to engage us differently in the world around us – here we have some speculations from urban engineering firm Arup.

Iâ??m interested in the different kinds of approaches to highlighting what we canâ??t see about an environment â?? not always using visualisation techniques, but other forms of experiential interaction.

For the next little while I’m going to introduce the practice I’ve been creating and how I came to be interested in this. My interest in location services and archives goes back a few years now, I thought I’d walk through some of the terrain I’ve covered.

In about 2003 I was working at the ABC in the digital services area. We were trying to work out what people might do with something called 3G phones.
I was going to conferences where people would be getting up and talking about how exciting the world was going to be when they could watch TV on their phone. Quite frankly, It made me want to scream. Clearly the networks were keen that we see this new technology as something to push their product on. Having studied my media history, I knew the press titans had done the same during the early days of radio, as did the early opera performers when the telephone first arrived in the late nineteenth century.

Just to let you in on a bit of media history, when the telephone was first introduced such things as â??telephone occasionsâ?? were common â?? when telephones were used to broadcast theatrical and political events. The â??theatrophoneâ?? was a smash hit at the Paris Exposition of 1881, enabling listeners to hear live performances of the Opera.

In this slide we can see a musical program being transmitted over the Hungarian â??Telefon Hirmondoâ?? network from Budapest in 1901. People would listen to Hirmondoâ??s â??telephone occasionsâ?? through small earpieces mounted to the wall. In the end the financial models of this form of broadcast service didnâ??t stack up, and the telephone occasions made way to wireless radio broadcasts.

This knowledge suggested to me that the TV networks might have gotten it wrong, and that how people might use smartphones could be as yet unknown to us. At this time, mobile platforms became an exciting conceptual terrain for me to start thinking about new forms of communication and experimentation.

Around this time I discovered that a bunch of people were making various kinds of art using these early mobile devices.

I met someone called Fee Plumley visit from the UK, and she was working on something called a ‘phone book project’, which was basically encouraging people to write little text message stories with their phone. The project was exploring the potential for mobile technologies as a creative platform. There was a crazy sound artist called Nigel Heyler who was using a GPS sound platforms to get to know graveyards.

I discovered there were artists who called themselves â??locative artistsâ?? and they were interested in how they might be able to use location-aware devices equipped with GPS tracking to create new kinds of public experiences of space. The slides you see (above) are from a group called Proboscis in the UK, public authoring platform using smartphones.

Oftentimes these artists were working with some fairly clunky technology, by todayâ??s standards. Here is Jeremy Hight working on his PDA project called Narrative Archaeology in LA.

In this work, participants walk the streets of Los Angeles with a GPS device attached to a TabletPC. It is a sort of “narrative archeology” unearthing the stories of forgotten lives in the urban space. Visible on the screen is a map with easily identifiable trigger points for story segments performed by voice actors. Trigger points for sound effects are hidden, left to be discovered as the user walks through the city. In this way, the landscape becomes the interface and the participant’s movement becomes input.

“Imagine walking through the city and triggering moments in time. Imagine wandering through a space inhabited with the sonic ghosts of another era.”

These artists opened up this new horizon of experimentation for me, particularly in the way they encouraged new ways of interacting with a physical space, combining an existing environment with layers of peopleâ??s own contributions, stories, histories.

But the more I got interested in this kind of location-based art, the more perturbed I became, about two things.

Firstly, while the focus was on the street, the actual experience of interaction was very device centric. You can see this in the picture. Were these projects doing enough to really engage with the user experience as you found yourself out on the street. Did people really want to walk around with these things? Would they learn more that way than they would by simply buying a guide book?

Subsequently, the focus of what participation meant was often the specific data that people had contributed. I wasnâ??t so sure that the assemblage of meanings, traces and stories built up over time in this kind of place were necessarily less worthy of attention that what people might contribute using one of these platforms. There seemed a kind of deafness to the existing resources of the street, and a new kind of forgetting, which said that only the contemporary data was worth listening to. Coming from the art world, works often generated their own new meanings, stories and artworks.

I realised I wanted to do something quite different. Taking these ideas from locative art, I wanted to find out if I could listen in to the cityâ??s archive. I had this image in my mind of one day the phone being some kind of homing device to the history of a place.

I wanted this experience to be very open to the world, not device centric but an experience that might frame, rather than dominate. Using sound on a mobile device, I imagined that a site specific recording could enable this truly unique interaction with the past, where the sound of another time frames a visual experience of the present.

As I learned more about this area I found I wasnâ??t alone, and that there were lots of people interested in using sound to create a different experiences of a place.

Hildergaard Westercamp â?? A walk through the city (1981)

A Walk through the City is an urban environmental composition based on Norbert Ruebsaatâ??s poem of the same name. It takes the listener into a specific urban location â?? Vancouver B.C.â??s Skid Row area â?? with its sounds and languages. Traffic, carhorns, brakes, sirens, aircraft, construction, pinball machines, the throb of trains, human voices, a poem, are its â??musical instruments.â? These sounds are used partly as they occur in reality and partly as sound objects altered in the studio. A continuous flux is created between the real and imaginary soundscapes, between recognizable and transformed places, between reality and composition.

Janet Cardiff â?? uses a layered narrative that deals with the physicality of memory in different places. Well known for her work in the 1990s The Missing Voice. An aural dream through the back streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. In no way obsessed with historical details but instead a journey into the memories of the female narrator and the sounds of East London. Cardiffâ??s work is filmic.

None of this particularly technologically advanced, but more about using the properties of mobile audio, which has been with us for a few decades by now.

So I set off on this speculative adventure, to explore sound archives as a medium to promote new kinds of interactions between the built and recorded history of a place

I came to this understanding of the potential of a medium: that listening to a recorded event as it was originally documented in-situ could affect a certain displacement â?? being from another time and capturing what can no longer been seen â?? just as it revisits the event â??hereâ?? as it â??really happenedâ??.My approach aimed to exploit the qualities of listening as a framing device, creating a sense of presence in a place, and giving a more experiential version of the past.

So this was coming up to 2005, I enrolled in a PhD to explore this proposition further, while working at the Australian Arts Council. From there I went on to undertake my speculative adventure #1, in the form of a research residency through the National Film and Sound Archive’s Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research.

Through this research I wanted to help create encounters with a siteâ??s documentary history that enabled a very strong sense of ‘co-presence’ with another time. This wasnâ??t about me doing something using sound effects, I wanted the direct contact with ambient recordings of the streets, capturing different moments in time.

When I commenced my research with the NFSA, I thought Iâ??d find a lot of recordings. But I quickly came to understand sound archives didnâ??t exist in the way Iâ??d expected – recorded on the street, that is. I honed my focus to period of development politics when documentary makers were active, and much change was occurring to Sydney’s built environment.

Competing visions of the city produced a great deal of urban unrest, of which lots of documentation exists. In particular, documentaries such as Wooloomooloo and Rocking the Foundations produced by Pat Fiske provide intimate insights into what the experience of this time was like, on the streets of Sydney.

Rather than focusing on better known locations, such as the Rocks, I ended up working with Victoria St, Potts Point (you can read about the events occurring on this street in the 1974 elsewhere on this site), and drawing extensively from the recordings made by Pat Fiske to produce a soundwalk down the street. More on the soundwalk can be found here.

At this point, I then approached the ABC to ask if I might be able to research their collection in this same way – as a kind of recorded archeology. The ABC had at this point been thinking about what they might be able to do with Google Maps which had recently been released, and so they suggested I could produce a maps-based platform for them rather than simply undertake a research residency.

The outcome was ABC Sydney Sidetracks – a cross-platform experience of Sydney’s history through its broadcast archive. You could access recordings via mobile and interactive maps. There’s lots more about Sidetracks on this site.

The ability to access the ABC’s archives meant I could locate many more actuality recordings of the particular moments and events in Sydney’s past. One in particular stood out, capturing the sounds VP Day 1945 in Martin Place, recommended to me by ABC Radio archives researcher John Spence. I have since cleared this recording for creative re-use through ABC Pool. This was in fact the first ‘post-war’ example of a mobile recording studio in action; recordings like this were really emphasising the new ability to record on location and distribute the sounds to listening audiences at home.

While the Sidetracks project was a success in many ways, and indeed won the ABC’s Best Multi-platform Content Award for 2009, at the time I felt it had many shortcomings. It was released prior to the iPhone being released which meant people had to sideload the mobile content to their phones – I had thought basically no-one had done so, however at the NDF discovered that wasn’t true!

Ultimately at the time there was a relatively limited audience for the mobile experience. (Sadly the ABC has not yet updated the platform, despite the increasing popularity of mobile as an urban history platform). I realised at this point that perhaps we needed a more spectacular way for people to engage with the recordings, and so in 2008 began to explore ways to project archival images onto the surfaces of associated buildings. After a few failed funding bids I partnered with Michael Killalea to lodge a successful application to mount a project for the City of Sydney’s Art & About Festival.

Hooray! Speculative Adventure No #3 was now underway!

These recent installation projects have been very focused on creating site-specific experiences of a location’s history using archival recordings. They extend the methodology I developed through previous projects such as Jaywalking and Sidetracks, by not only including the element of projections but also by including the community in sharing and development stories and content for the installations. For both installation projects we have received support from collecting institutions, in particular the National Film and Sound Archive. But it’s the ethos of the Art & About Festival, as led by Director Gill Minervini, that has encouraged us to work with the community to not only create works of art in the public domain, but to also work with the public in a collaborative way.

This has introduced a new dimension to working with archive collections in public environments, helping to foster what might be described as the ‘living archives’ of a community.

(For the purposes of this web version of the publication, I am not covering the two installation projects in detail as I did in the presentation. You can explore these projects through their respective websites: Unguarded Moments and Last Drinks – One More Round at the Hotel Australia).

Prior to the launch of these installations we ran call-outs inviting people to share their own archives – images or stories – for incorporation into projections, as captured below.

These contributions were then used alongside recordings I’d located through partner organisations. The outcomes were both a web platform containing ‘hyper-local’ collections and recordings about a place, sourced from a number of different cultural collections, loungerooms and basements, as well as a series of site-specific installations. Installations include large scale video projections and sound, which are featured out and about in the streets after dark for the month of the Art & About Festival. For Last Drinks, we also included a mobile site and additional print based signage, and a tie-in with the Sydney Morning Herald’s AirLink service.

Here are some of the Flickr slideshows from these projects. You can also explore more video, soundscapes and more through the ESEM Projects website and associated project websites.

Unguarded Moments Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2011.

Last Drinks Slideshow, Art & About Sydney 2012.

Closing Reflections

The different ‘speculative adventures’ I’ve been discussing with you today have all been a lot of fun, and the experience of being able to uncover and explore recorded archaeologists of place in the way I’ve been doing is hugely rewarding. Perhaps I was a private detective in a former life, who knows. I’ve received a lot of support from particular institutions, not least the National Film and Sound Archive, the State Library of NSW, the City of Sydney and the ABC.

But I should warn you, should you be interested in navigating such a journey through your own city’s archive, the path is rather convoluted and remains full of obstacles.

Not least, mounting a project in the public domain isn’t easy. Building owners may be happy to support you, but they have less ‘skin in the game’ than one would sometimes wish for. You can’t measure your audiences, who are often incidental passers-by, like you might at a gallery or museum. But perhaps the biggest of these obstacles remains the thorny matter of digital access.

At the beginning of this presentation I spoke about the sense of ‘big archives’ – that we are overwhelmed by archive fever – but in fact we are still a long way away from being able to seamlessly navigate an urban historical environment through its digital archives. This is partly because many collections items, in particular broadcast recordings, are not usually valued for their ability to document a changing city, and are usually catalogued for their relevance to media history, not urban history. So this means there is a lot of auditioning involved!

But there remain a number of obstacles to actually being able to view, audition, and re-use these recordings for public installations. I can be tenacious and stubborn but others less so would give up on trying to create a ‘cross-collection’ archive based on the history of a place. And so I do find it interesting to say the least that our collective past â?? as captured by our public media, and preserved by our collecting institutions â?? can be so inaccessible at times. Many of the recordings of the past â?? as captured on film and publically funded television and radio â?? do remain mostly closed to the ‘woman on the street’ so to speak.

When we live in a digital age, when our expectations of learning and experiencing a sense of the past involve not only books but media recordings and artefacts, YouTube and StreetView, I think we also need to consider a broader concept of what public space means, to include considerations of how it is that we access and participate in sharing and re-using our ‘digital public spaces’. What might the different forms of access be for different kinds of uses, whether as a student, a historian, or a documentary maker, or a city council, and how might we define the public values of our digital archives in the future – not just as ‘memory institutions’ but also as resources for future creativity and innovation?

That’s a near future I’m speculating about right now.

Thank you.

Some Twitter love…


Book Chapter: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011)

A new book on urban informatics hit the bookstores last December: From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen (MIT 2011) edited by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano, Christine Satchell and Martin Gibbs. Congratulations to everyone involved in the creation of this impressive collection of case studies, reflections and stories from the front lines of the ever-expanding set of practices that is urban informatics. The collection comes as a result of an HSCNet symposium held in 2009 by QUT’s Urban Informatics Lab .

Strange indeed how different are the time scales inhabited by online vs print publishing, meaning that a ‘new’ book in fact features research outcomes that are two years old, obviously a long time in internet years. And yet while much may have changed since the symposium itself, when the likes of Adam Greenfield shared with eager onlookers his disruptive, eclectic thoughts and musings relating to The City is Here for You to Use, the tangibility of a printed book certainly retains its special charms.

My chapter, ‘Street Haunting: Sounding the Invisible City‘ features in a section dealing with what is called ‘Creative Engagement’.

As the Abstract reads:

Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, wikis, and photo sharing and social networking sites, have made possible a more participatory Internet experience. Much of this technology is available for mobile phones, where it can be integrated with such device-specific features as sensors and GPS. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen examines how this increasingly open, collaborative, and personalizable technology is shaping not just our social interactions but new kinds of civic engagement with cities, communities, and spaces. It offers analyses and studies from around the world that explore how the power of social technologies can be harnessed for social engagement in urban areas.

Chapters by leading researchers in the emerging field of urban informatics outline the theoretical context of their inquiries, describing a new view of the city as a hybrid that merges digital and physical worlds; examine technology-aided engagement involving issues of food, the environment, and sustainability; explore the creative use of location-based mobile technology in cities from Melbourne, Australia, to Dhaka, Bangladesh; study technological innovations for improving civic engagement; and discuss design research approaches for understanding the development of sentient real-time cities, including interaction portals and robots.



Unguarded Moments – Art & About Sydney 2011

Unguarded Moments is a new project I’m working on as part of Art & About Sydney 2011. The project has been selected as the ‘City Villages’ project and will be based around the wharves of Walsh Bay and up through to Millers Point.

For the project’s accompanying website, I’ve been able to set up some useful hyperlocal services, using Channels on Flickr and YouTube to aggregrate and re-publish a number of images and films relating the area. It’s amazing how much the web has changed since I worked on Sidetracks only 3 years ago.

Check out the website here.

More to come on this project.


Remembering the Green Bans

I had the pleasure of attending a great forum at the Institute of Australian Geographers Conference on Tuesday on the topic of the Green Bans. This year we are seeing a number of events and articles on the topic, marking the 40th anniversary of this particularly intense period of urban activism in Australia.

Bob and Margaret Fagan opened the first session with song – Margaret sang ‘City of Green‘ and Bob gave a heartfelt rendition of ‘Monuments’. Both were written by the godfather of Australian union songs, Denis Kevans.

Excerpt of the Green Bans Mural, Woolloomooloo. Image by Sarah Barns, 2008.

It was hard not to be moved by the sentiment of these songs – and be reminded of the potential for academic inquiry be not only of the head but also of the heart. Having used an excerpt of ‘City of Green’ at the end of my 2007 soundwalk I was particularly moved to hear it performed in person by Margaret. We closed the session with a screening of Denise White and Pat Fiske’s Woolloomooloo, taking us back to the hectic days on Victoria St in 1974, days when the wharfie Mick Fowler lambasted the developers for kicking out low income people from their homes, when Wendy Bacon squatted with the rest of them and promoted the values of alternative community living, when council aldermen sounded like Andrew Briger – see below. I fear people of such poise no longer walk this earth…

Many thanks to Kurt Iveson and Nicole Cook for organising the session.


James Gleick on the Future of the Book


Image credit: Bob Brown’s confident prediction was made in 1931. Sourced from James Gleick’s blog.

Originally written for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, 2011. 

Closing the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival was a plenary address by author James Gleick, whose book The Information has been recently described by the ABC’s Robyn Williams as the ‘best science book ever’.
Detailing the modern history of information technology, The Information tracks how it was that ‘information’ came to be conceived as an abstract quantity, giving rise to terms like ‘bit’ to describe a unit of data. It’s obvious to us now, but it took people like Bell Telephone Labs engineer Claude Shannon to imagine that everything from the morse code to thermodynamics to jungle drums might have a measurable scientific quantity, before the information age we now live in could emerge.

But while The Information offers readers insights into how the abstraction of data has created what he calls an ‘information flood’, Gleick’s SWF address, titled ‘Perish the Thought’ was far less inclined to treat books as mere ‘containers’ of ‘content’.

“The separation”, he suggests, “is not entirely satisfying – we interact with a book in a more complex way”. A book is not merely a container for content, in the way that a wine bottle holds the wine. It is, he suggests, a “peak technology – one that is ideally suited to its task”. That means, contrary to the deafening roar of technology boosters and bloggers, the book will never die.

To support his case, Gleick took us on a journey through the many moments of the book’s anticipated demise. In the 1930s, for example, a relatively obscure American author Robert Brown wrote a manifesto declaring books “antiquated word containers”. We were reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s impassioned embrace of print’s demise in the early 1960s – the potentials then offered by fuzzy black and white television were, to MacLuhan, portents of new participatory forms of literacy in the coming ‘electric age’. Nicholas Negroponte was calling for an end to the book back in 1996, just as he claimed in 2010 that “the physical book is dead” – that digital books will replace physical books as the dominant form.

So it’s not that the claims are new. It’s just that the e-book is now a reality, and what’s more it’s splendid. Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate in 2009 how much he loves the Kindle as his “cool new literature delivery system”. Audiences agree: last week Amazon announced a new milestone, now selling more Kindle versions of book titles than print. Forget the future – the death of the book is clearly happening right now.

Not so, says Gleick. As someone who has thought a lot about the relationships between ‘containers’ and their ‘content’, Gleick is more inclined to think of the value of the book as lying in its print form. It’s the human instinct to collect objects of value that makes us love the book as an object, he suggests, and he quotes I.A Richards, who thought of the books as ‘a machine to think with’.

Like other treatments on the subject, such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, Gleick tends to think the bigger problem at hand is not in fact the demise of the book – after all 2010 saw the publication of 316,000 new titles, and that’s not including the nearly one million titles borne of ‘internet-driven’ non-traditional publishing – but rather the publishing industry itself. Gleick contends here that the trouble may be less about digital formats and more to do with the short-termism of publishers and their insatiable greed, chasing after block busters and leaving the backlists for dead.

It’s these characteristics that are only letting the e-books down too, he claims. Sloppy editing, too many widows and orphans, charging readers too much, paying writers too little – they all stand in the way of creating a satisfying e-book experience. ‘Enhanced’ e-books offering readers embedded video and applets may be well and good, but don’t, he pleas, start embedding hyperlinks into text, and don’t start introducing social bookmarks! In other words don’t introduce anything that will take the reader out of the book.

This may be a fanciful desire on Gleick’s part, but it also goes to the crux of the matter. The word not mentioned in this address was ‘narrative’, and it seemed a strange omission – after all, isn’t the only thing distinguishing ‘the book’ from ‘the internet’ in an age of e-publishing the coherence of the narrative perspective? And that old authorial voice?

In the end, for Gleick, it came down to a bit more than narrative consistency, and the trusted authorial voice nourished by publishers committed to the task of connecting writers with their audiences. The book as a ‘peak technology’ was key. Technology barriers limit the time horizon of video to around 100 years. For the internet, the time horizon is around 20 years; Facebook give or take a couple of years. The genius of the book as a peak technology is its ability to break through the technological barriers of the past, with a time horizon dating to the beginning of human history. In the antiquity of the book, then, lies its future. To Gleick: “When we find ourselves living in the perpetual present, books become the furniture of eternity”.

James Gleick is an author, journalist and biographer whose books explore the cultural ramifications of science and technology. His most recent book, ‘The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’, is being hailed as his crowning work. Gleick is also the author of the bestselling books ‘Chaos’, ‘Genius’, ‘Faster’ and a biography of Isaac Newton. Three of these books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. James divides his time between New York City and Florida.

Originally published at Creative Innovation.

Sarah Barns gets excited by digital publishing, but judging by the unwieldy pile of books stacked up by her bedside, remains stuck with the antiquated habits of what Ben Ehrenreich would call a ‘biblio-necrophiliac’.

Listen to Robyn Williams interview James Gleick at the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival.

Image Credit: SENSEable City Lab, Network & Society Project, MIT 2010

The Death and Life of the Real-Time City

Much of the archives work featured on this site has contributed to a PhD I’ve been undertaking through the University of Technology Sydney. It’s been a long and winding journey – starting out in the Faculty of Computing and IT and ending up in Public History – and finally submitted in August 2010.

Titled The Death and Life of the Real-Time City: Re-imagining the City of Digital Urbanism, this is a somewhat ‘non-traditional’ PhD which traverses a number of different fields and takes in ideas relating to urban computing, utopian images of the city, urban activism during the 20th century, sound practices, and the digital distribution of media archives today.

If you’re wondering how all those ideas fit together, you best have a read. A copy of the unpublished dissertation can be downloaded here.

The Abstract begins like this:

Information and communications technologies are becoming increasingly diffused within the material spaces of the city, generating novel ways of representing complex, hitherto ‘invisible’ urban behaviours in real-time. Many digital urbanists are inspired by the capacity of these network technologies to radically transform our perceptions and experiences of urban space. But how ‘new’, really, is this emergent vision of the city?

My primary interest has been to critically interrogate how it is that digital urbanists approach the space of the city – not only in descriptive terms, in terms of the ‘what is’, whether that be current GPS-enabled bicycle trips or mobile phone usage patterns, but by projecting a kind of anticipatory urban imaginary which agitates for ‘what might be’ and in doing so, is implicitly critical of the status quo.

By digital urbanists, I basically mean those practitioners and researchers who are excited by the potential for urban computing – wireless networks, mobile devices and so forth – to alter the way we use and understand urban spaces. Just as the term ‘urbanism’ is sometimes used to denote a passionate interest in, or engagement with, the vicissitudes of urban life, I’ve used the term ‘digital urbanism’ to capture a largely optimistic engagement in the potential for urban computing technologies to reform cities.

MIT SENSEable City Lab 2010. Project: Network & Society

I’ve been fascinated with the rise of digital urbanism because it stands quite apart from the orientation of many cyberspace cheerleaders of the 1990s, who predicted the demise of the city. Where previously the anti-materiality of this post-urban fantasy had looked to the Internet as a kind of utopia of pure space â?? where a virtual world of pure information served to ‘decontaminate’ natural and urban landscapes and annihilate geographical constraints, today’s real-time communications are instead championed as potentially enhancing the behaviours of the city.

The concept of the real-time city is only one of the many ways in which ‘the city’ is being re-visioned using contemporary network technologies. It’s associated primarily with the work of practitioners of urban informatics, a discipline championed by researchers such as Marcus Foth, Anthony Townsend, and Howard Rheingold, along with industry practitioners like Carlo Ratti, head of the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Dan Hill, Senior Consultant at Arup and creator of cityofsound.com.

In my thesis, I approach the concept of the real-time city a bit more broadly than it is usually understood within fields like urban informatics, because Iâ??m interested in it not as a functional term but as an aspirational term. The real-time city, I argue, serves to project a particular vision of the city, one whose performance rests on the capacity for distributed computing to â??enhanceâ?? representations of cities as complex urban systems, often using data visualization techniques to capture otherwise ‘hidden’ data flows between distributed computing devices, including mobile phones.

My central concern with this vision is its reliance on technologies of visualisation, which are used to offer better representations of urban complexity. Despite the emphasis on urban complexity, my contention is that this vision nevertheless progresses particular, and in fact quite restrictive, notions of the urban. I’ve found that many of the claims of digital urbanists tend to pivot around the revelatory capacity of real-time networks to ‘make the invisible visible’. In its approach to the city, this entrenches an intensely visual agenda which is evident across much of urban studies, setting certain parameters around what can be ‘seen’ and what remains ‘unseen’ in the life of the real-time city.

I treat the emphasis on visual abstraction as a concern, not only for its tendency to privilege the visual over other sensory modes of urban experience, but also for its privileging of a formalistic, design-led approach, which tends to engage with systems design at the expense of social process. Such tendencies have not gone unnoticed; the architect Peter Eisenmann recently decried practices associated with digital urbanism as a ‘new, virulent breed of formalism, more virulent because it [is] posed under the banner of a neo-avant guard technological determinism’ (cited in Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present, 2008).

So that’s where Jane Jacobs comes in, with her seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1965). Urban planners during the 1960s were enchanted by the potential to introduce greater order into the city – think of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City – and put forward models of ‘urban renewal’ which could be easily replicated across other cities. Death and Life was essentially a tirade against these practices of post-war American planning, mourning the way American cities were being transformed into forests of high-rise buildings, leaving their citizens ostracized and isolated, and subsequently undermining the vitality of American public culture.

Jane Jacobs on her bicycle, New York 1960s.

Aghast at the impersonalized urban landscapes transforming modern American cities, Jacobs urged that greater attention be paid to the values of locatedness and connectedness to place. In a strong but gentle polemical style, Jacobs argued that urban spaces worked best when strangers could easily encounter each other, when children played on the street, and when planning decisions could be made at a local level, rather than through centralized planning bureaucracies and the imposition of abstracted ideas about cities.

The challenge Jacobs presented to modern urban planning was therefore not just about the particular technique of urban renewal being promulgated by the American planning profession at that time. It also concerned, more fundamentally, its claim to be reviving urban spaces through new approaches to urban development, which relied heavily on techniques of urban abstraction. To Jacobs, such techniques famously represented â??the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be servedâ? (1965: 25). Rather than resorting to a plan, a grid, or a highway network, Jacobs reconceived cities as disorganised collections of haphazard incidents and accidental encounters between strangers.

Robert Moses' plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway

Across contemporary urban planning and architecture today, Jacob’s target of post-war modernist planning tends to be framed for its tragic failures, a product of the over reliance on the urban spatial form as a basis from which to alleviate social ills, seeking to reform or renew built environments while leaving social relationships intact. Jacobs’ polemic is required reading for today’s students, who are taught of the failures wrought by these modernist regimes, and the geographies of single-use enclaves and far-flung highways they spawned. Indeed, the criticisms she waged against the profession might today be considered planning orthodoxy: in particular, the need to avoid widely-replicable, abstract urban schemas, and to instead take into account the local conditions that give rise to productive diversity.

In recalling its title, my thesis is not so much interested in what Death and Life had to say about the ideal conditions of urban form, the length of city blocks, the presence of mixed industry, etcetera, as its symbolic and now historic project of re-imagining ‘the city’. In challenging the conventional wisdom about how to understand cities, part of the radicalism of Death and Life was its steady insistence that the trickiness of cities can be as evident in everyday interactions on downtown sidewalks as it is in the abstracted representations and codifications of specialised disciplines. So the title of my thesis draws from Jacobs to affirm the continuing importance of this central challenge as it applies to the emergent fields of digital urbanism today.

Somewhat working against the grain of conventional approaches (if you can use a term like ‘conventional’ in relation to a relatively nascent field of practice!), my PhD has gone on to retrieve some different practices and perspectives, drawn from the fields of critical spatial theory, cultural geography and sound studies, to re-imagine a ‘real-time’ experience of the urban terrain. Through a practice-led response, I’ve re-imagined the digital terrain as a historical topology that enfolds within it different time-spaces – what I’ve cheekily called the ‘real times of space‘.

This practice has made tactical use of the mobile device as a listening platform, capable of retrieving the substrata of today’s digital terrain through its archival audio traces. Working in Sydney, Australia, I’ve retrieved the ambient resonances of particular moments in the life of the city in the way one might navigate a memori topi, using archival sound traces to facilitate experiential audio-visual interactions with the past-presences of an urban space.

This practice has tried to figure out a way of navigating the digital-urban terrain not as a networked space of contemporary connectivity – the perpetual present of real-time interaction – but also as a way of experiencing what Doreen Massey has called a ‘simultaneity of stories so far’ (for space, 2003, p.109). Massey has been influential for me here – in an exhibition catalogue for Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Museum in 2003 Massey writes of the times of space, , which is not quite totally spatial in its privileging of the present, but open to loose ends, to connections yet to be made. If we shift the concept of ‘real- time’ away from that of the networked connectivity of the present, to the ‘loose ends’ of space’s real-times, what practices might that lead to?

Here I’ve turned to sound, and specifically ambient sound archives of city spaces, as a way of listening in to the resonant traces of past moments. By doing so, I’ve hoped to enrich the spatial imaginary of the real-time city and its digital practices; to not only illuminate the contours of its networked connectivity, but to also listen, and learn, from what we might retrieve when we return to its forgotten spaces.

Ultimately, I’m totally fascinated with the rise of urban computing, and the potential for spatial technologies to re-shape not only the way we use cities, but also the way we imagine them. Nevertheless, I believe it’s time for more critical debate about the extent to which technologies of urban computing can themselves reform the deeper institutional and political practices that underpin the production of contemporary cities. From Web 2.0 to City 2.0 – how might that take shape within institutions of urban governance?

Listening in to the city’s recorded geography might help to answer that question. When we do listen, we hear that the agitations of urban crisis are not so new, we can listen to the mistakes of urban modernism, and can perhaps begin to recall the dangers of believing reform is something to be designed by only a few.

Past Forward

ABC Open Archives on Pool

Through ABC Pool, I’ve been working to publish a number of the archival recordings featured on Sydney Sidetracks through an open access Creative Commons licence. That means they are now available for re-use and remix. The project is starting with the Sydney collection, but will be expanding to include other cities very soon.

The project has featured on the ABC’s social media website Pool. It launched on January 2011 and has since seen the release of a number of additional ABC TV & Radio Archives items into the public domain.

An example of some of the items I have cleared through this project include:

VP Day 1945


Through this project I cleared a number of voice recordings of infamous Sydney-siders, including the gunman Chow Hayes, the activist Juanita Nielsen and the colourful lady-about-town Bea Miles.

Living on the Fringe

As part of this ABC Pool project I conducted an interview with the director, Gian Carlo Manara, and undertook further research into the ABC’s document archives to uncover some of the unwanted press associated with the release of this once controversial documentary.

Q&A With GianCarlo Manara, Director of Living on the Fringe
Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives

GianCarlo Manara, director of the ABC’s 1963 documentary Living on the Fringe, shares some of his memories about the film with Sarah Barns.

SB: What opportunities were there for documentary makers working in Australia at this time? How important was the ABC in supporting documentary production?

GM: At the time we made Living on the Fringe, there weren’t so many opportunities for the few people with sufficient professional skill to make documentaries. The ABC was one of the first institutions to offer that chance, through programs like Big Country.

SB: Was this a difficult film to make within the ABC at this time?

GM: Documentaries like this weren’t very common. It was Allan Ashbolt in the Talks Dept who wanted to use television to make more political documentaries like this one. We worked together on Four Corners – our association grew from there.

SB: What inspiration did you draw from when making this film? (for example, Italian neo-realist films etc).

GM: I graduated in Film Direction and Scriptwriting in Italy in 1955. We all in the school were the products of Italian neo-realism. I personally have been also influenced by other filmmakers such as Grierson, Rota, and Cavalanti.

SB: Did your own migrant story influence this film in any way?

GM: No, I was not influenced by my migrant experience, but by the stark reality of the life of the neglected and the poor. The the media at the time always preferred to ignore this.

SB: How did people on the streets of Sydney react to your filming of them?

GM: Filming in the streets at that time was still a novelty. I often used a “candid camera” approach to catch reality. An exception was when I asked my sexy friend Diana Roberts, now the well know writer Di Morrisey, to walk around some streets in East Sydney. At this time many Italians and Maltese migrants used to hang around on Sunday morning. Migrants at the time were very lonely â?? no social life and above all no women! The “Latin Lover” was not yet a trendy image!

SB: What did you hope audiences would learn from Living on the Fringe?

GM: My hope was for the average viewer to understand that Australia was not just the land of milk and honey – that here, just like other part of the world, there were people in need.

SB: Do you think Sydney is a better city today than it was when Living on the Film was made?

GM: Is Sydney a better place today? It is a big question. It is certainly different – there is more social awareness in the area of welfare and help. Of course lifestyles are also very different. Is it better? If I look back at the Sydney of this time I see a child, and today I see an adult. But is the adult of today better than the child of yesterday? It is a big question… I often think about it, about the old beach carnival when the Life Savers were marching like soldiers, when the girls were wearing petticoats and Saturday night was the night of dance at the Trocadero! All gone! However the girls are still beautiful, and the Life Savers are still so important and so Australian!

But one thing is for sure: the “greed” that today is often rampant was not so much at the time, even if everyone of course attempted to make some â??quidsâ??!

The BLF Green Bans

Sounding the city’s real times

It was 9am Sydney time on August 15 1945 when British Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced that Japan had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. ‘The last of our enemies is laid low’ he said. PEACE! roared The Sun. In downtown Martin Place, massive crowds spontaneously gathered, to dance and make whoopie in celebration of the end of the War.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s Talbot Duckmanton was there that day to record the scenes, describing to his audience some of the finer details of the setting: a Hitler effigy being hung from the windows of one of the banks, circles of dancing women before him (‘fine looking ladies, too!’), the din of a mosquito zooming around maniacally over head.

Duckmanton’s recording captures the emerging style of documentary radio reportage adopted by the ABC’s radio correspondents after the war, as they took advantage of new, more versatile recording technologies to head out of the studio and into the streets and backwaters of Australia (Inglis 1983: 164; Thomas 2007).

Standing in Martin Place today, listening in, through headphones, to the sounds captured by the ABC’s recording of these ebullient scenes some sixty-five years ago, one feels a giddy sense of time travel, being transported to that celebrated moment as it had been experienced right here. That sense of immediacy Duckmanton had worked to establish for his radio listeners back in 1945 draws today’s listener back in, to participate with his audience of the day in imagining the scenes at Martin Place. ‘There’s no policeman directing traffic on Pitt St today’ he tells us. No, indeed there is not.

Today Martin Place is unusually quiet. It’s Saturday and the office workers who normally mill about here are nowhere to be seen. Weekend shoppers and tourists are perhaps avoiding the tunnel of wind that blows constantly up through the pedestrian promenade, making the place feel somewhat chilly even on hot summer afternoons. Duckmanton’s narration continues:

Over on my right, on one of the buildings at the back, somebody has hung out a big dummy of Adolf Hitler with a great swastiker on the front of it, and to the cheers of the crowd he was lowered down from the top of the building and – duly hung!

Today’s solitary listener might look up, wondering on which of these buildings here the spectacle occurred.

Listening to the sounds of this old radio recording through personal headphones, we join with Duckmanton’s audience of the day in imagining the scenes being described. But we’re not listening to the wireless, whether from home or work, we’re in Martin Place, separated through time, not by distance, to the sounds of this euphoria en masse of the manic joy of wives soon to be reunited with husbands, of a city jubilant with the prospect of an immanent end to war-time rations.

As we ‘return’ to this moment as it was documented here, in-situ, we are also just another person in the crowd with headphones on, enclosed, as Bull (2007) would have it, in a ‘pleasurable and privatized sound bubble’ of own own choosing.

We might consider the peculiar sound bubble of this listening experience to be hallucinatory in its effects, in eliciting ‘visions’ of that which can no longer be seen. The experience is reminiscent of a movie soundtrack, transforming what is seen into a kind of cinematic-like visual feast. While this experience is all too familiar to headphone wearers everywhere, this particular piece of audio, an old, scratchy recording of a public event that took place right here some time ago, brings back a sense of the collective memory of an invisible past.

So this audio recording facilitates a slightly different kind of audio-visual interactivity to that which might ordinarily be experienced with headphones, as the displacement affected by the auditory frame is also something of a ‘return’; an intimate commemoration with that previous, broadcast present.

Today’s listener might ‘visit’ a number of these archival recordings as one would visit a monument, or some kind of a physical artefact that describes a historical event. Further up the street at Chifley Square, our listener can hear the chants of a student demonstration. It’s 1968 and Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam is under fire. The protesters have gathered outside the Commonwealth Centre, a towering 1960s office block demolished in 1988 to make way for the Chifley Tower. She hears a voice projected through a loudspeaker proclaiming the rights of conscientious objectors to a trial by jury, muffled cries calling for Mr. Robert Kennedy’s resignation, boos and hisses, muffled and dispersed at first and then becoming louder.  The listener hears these sounds through her headphones, while the ambient noises of Chifley Square bleed into her densely, scratchily archival audio space. Further down at Circular Quay, she can ‘visit’ the voice of Paul Robeson singing Old Man River to the construction workers of the Sydney Opera House in 1963.

If she heads over to the Rocks, she’ll also hear the sounds of Green Ban protesters fighting against the prospect of further high-rise construction, clashing with police in 1973; a bird sings in the background as a reporter details the scene. As she visits these recordings, the listener’s experience of these events yields a city of discrete, temporally-discontinous moments in time: a topography of events, as captured by recording technologies of the day.

Today’s s listener could chart a course through central Sydney visiting these ‘soundmarks’ as one might visit different places of historical interest. Her experience of these sounds in-situ amplifies a different historical geography to that of the ‘sculptured narrative’ (ref) of monuments and memorials. When she stands in Martin Place listening to the sounds of VP Day, she’s looking at the Victorian sandstone buildings wondering on which one the Hitler effigy hung, and may only take a passing interest in their architectural features. Down at Circular Quay, she’s imagining the Sydney Opera House as a mess of scaffolding. When the listener returns to these moments, she revisits the past as originally experienced, and documented, as the ‘present’. In these recordings, she hears journalists detailing a contemporary (now past) scene, not recollections as described by someone from a future vantage point in time. The sense of immediacy yielded by these ambient street recordings, as it retrieves an experience of ‘being there’, is in this respect quite different to a studio-based oral history recording, which looks backwards from a contemporary vantage point.

These pieces are not intended to structure the listener’s physical navigation of an environment, but simply to ‘mark’ a space-time, or series of space-times. They don’t offer the listener a structured navigation through a given locale. When you listen, you’ll hear no instructions as to which way you should walk; which way you should look. Each piece simply seeks to triangulate, like Calvino’s invisible cities, the measurements of space with the events of its past. 

Each of these sound pieces experiments with different approaches to working with sound archives for a site-specific listening experience. All are relatively short – the longest is 14 minutes. All were produced using the ABC’s archives, with the exception of one piece I produced using materials identified from the National Film and Sound Archive.

Some simply present a single archival recording; others are more complex edited compositions that integrate a number of different sound sources. Some are narrated; others are not.

Many of these pieces relate to what I have called ‘resonant spaces’ in Sydney; spaces whose amplification through the documentary record illuminates sites of conflict and contestation which otherwise remain hidden from view. Listening to these recordings in-situ intends to amplify a different historical geography to that of the sculptured narrative of official monuments and memorials.

Such resonant spaces amplify the contested nature of a site’s contemporary spatiality. But other pieces are not about urban conflict at all: they simply ‘return’ to particular moments in the life of the city, yielding a topology of events and moments, as captured by different recording technologies of the day. I find some of these recorded moments particularly compelling as they enable the listener to revisit the past as originally experienced, and documented, as the ‘present’ specifically for the purpose of contemporary documentary reportage.

As compositions, these sound marks are not intended to demonstrate new methods of sound composition, or examples of context-aware media technology. They are simply intended to demonstrate what different kinds of auditory remnants might be retrieved when we listen in to the real times of space. Wherever possible, I have made these recordings available for re-use by others interested in working with street’s acoustical historical geography. I make no claims over ownership of the final compositions, but only gesture towards their possible incorporation into contemporary practice.

Victoria St today

Victoria St Soundwalk

What’s so special about Victoria St?

Victoria St has long been one of Sydney’s most prized locations, described by the National Trust in the 1970s as the ‘Montmartre of Sydney’.

It was also the site of the first public housing campaign in Australia (Ashton 1993: 104). In 1971 first-time property developer Frank Theeman acquired whole rows of houses here through his company Victoria Point Pty Ltd, with plans to demolish the terrace houses and build a number of office and apartment towers. Theeman gained council approval for his plans in March 1973, when he began to issue eviction notices to tenants of these properties, many of which were boarding houses available for low rent.

Read on…


1. Soundwalk:’I built a city of green, the best you’ve ever seen’

2. 115 Victoria St: Mick Fowlerâ??s Funeral

3. 202 Victoria St: Juanita’s home

  1. Wendy’s speech outside 115 Victoria St

More Green Bans…

[1] This is the way Wendy Bacon described Sydney in her speech outside 115 Victoria St in 1974, featured in my Victoria St soundwalk.

[2] Accounts of what happened on Victoria St that day are available through a number of web resources, and are documented by Pat Fiske in Woolloomooloo (1979). References include Milliss (1974); Milliss and Brennan (1974); Rees (2004); Squatspace (2004); Burgmann and Burgmann (1993). The transcript of an interview with Mundey reflecting on the importance of the Green Bans to the development of Australian cities is available from the ABC at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/talkingheads/txt/s2649576.htm