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


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.


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 I’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 ‘enhance’ 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 ‘the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served’ (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.