If Dan Hill’s incredible post on urban informatics wasn’t enough to convince you that he’s one of the most observant and insightful writers on the topic, then perhaps his most recent exploration of transport informatics will. But don’t be deceived by his claim that this is merely a “quick survey of new informational approaches to transport, hinging on individual behaviour and engagement via public data.” It’s actually a rather comprehensive look at ten areas for new technological intervention: holistic approaches and those related to cars, scooters, bicycles, bus, rail, taxi, aircraft, maritime and walking. As Dan says, the reader will “travel from wifi on buses to designs for timetables embedded in the fabric of stations, stopping off at trams in Google Maps and proposals for roboscooter sharing schemes.”
However interesting and/or lovely his examples may be–and they really are–I’m not sure that they provide sufficient empirical evidence that “data, transported and shaped by the internet, is increasingly becoming a primary way that people expect to engage with public transport in particular. Engage, as in access and navigate through transport service information, but also explore and understand the transport service itself.”
Or rather, I’m still don’t understand exactly who these “people” are. This lack of clarity may seem trivial, but if we’re going to claim that access to information can lead to more socially and environmentally responsible engagements with urban infrastructure (i.e. behaviour modification) then I think it’s really important to know the actual composition (demographics, cultural traits, etc.) of these emergent publics.
Cabspotting by Stamen
For example, Dan’s assumptions about data and their relationship to people’s everyday lives create a need for increased technological and bureaucratic infrastructure that would require substantial justification in most places around the world:
A key aspect here is to ensure that transport systems are generating rich data in real-time as a side-effect of their use I.e. not as a discrete activity, measuring performance occasionally, but that systems are in effect working as continuous broadcast networks, each node – tram, bus, bike, car – generating data about its behaviour (effectively they become large ‘spimes’, or aggregates of spimes). Having achieved that, we can measure behaviour and thus measure change. And then feed back information to users to enable them to measure their own change too … Each car, bus, tram becomes a node in an informational network, not just the transport network – and visible by the public. Moreover, by opening up this information, people can tinker with their own applications to monitor, explain, explore transport usage – the kind of open approach to data that has fuelled the rapid growth of internet-based systems … People can engage further with the city, seeing it through the prism of transport, building stronger civic relationships.
While I also appreciate Dan’s optimism and enthusiasm, I’m still a bit concerned that his vision of urban transport informatics requires everyday life be reconfigured according to second-order cybernetic principles, where civic engagement is defined in terms of the citizen’s ability to model her behaviour on existing systems, allowing for self-organisation, sure, but only within certain parameters established, in this case, by particular data sets. This concern is related to broader moves (in Dan’s writing and elsewhere) to define citizenship in terms of individualisation rather than in cosmopolitan or multi-cultural terms, which I believe threaten the kinds of cross-cultural engagement and social ethics needed for sustainable and responsible global urbanism.
All of which is to say that Dan’s piece is well worth reading, and I’m grateful to have been introduced to so many new projects and initiatives in this area. But I’d also like to encourage a bit more critical take on the social and cultural assumptions that underpin this vision. For example, what people and places are immediately or effectively excluded from these technosocial scenarios? What kind of infrastructural changes are needed to ensure that transport systems function as “continuous broadcast networks”? As complex systems produce or generate more and more complex data, what kinds of systems or systemic relations are needed to make personal or communal use of the data, or to protect ourselves from having data used against us?