Summary of the session on Digital Representation of Place at the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff. The session aim was to address the following challenge: “Over the last few decades, our cities have become increasingly digital. Urban environments are layered with data and algorithms that fundamentally shape our geographic interactions: impacting how we perceive, move through, and use space. Spatial justice is thus inextricably tied to data justice, and it has become imperative to ask questions about who owns, controls, shapes, and has access to those augmented and hybrid digital/physical layers of place. Now that over half of humanity is connected to the internet, do we see greater levels of representation of, and participation from, previously digitally disconnected populations? Or are our digitally dense environments continuing to amplify inequalities rather than alleviate them? A growing body of knowledge documents the societal impact such digital representations can have, for example when they favour the interests of one privileged group (such as tourists) at the expense of others. We seek to systematise this knowledge, and to provide guidance for practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers to address imbalances and inequalities in representation.”
An Introduction to Digital Representations of Place
A bit of background on information geography. Information geography is about a way to represent a place online – e.g. a place on Wikipedia – place, coordinates, and the fact that the information is coded also as a database, so it’s possible to map the unevenness of digital representation of the work. So information geography is asking at looking at the digital and the physical world (definition in Graham, Zook and Boulton 2013). We then can ask questions about where the imbalances coming from – for example, the cost of bandwidth, there are still places in the world that can’t access and participate. There is also questions about who owns, controls, shapes, and has access to those augmented and hybrid digital/physical representations of place.There is difference about the degree in which people at a place edit the information about the place. Which parts of the world telling about the place and you can see it in different parts of the world – down to a city. It matter, because the world is shaped through devices and everywhere you go, you have a digital overlay of the world that influence actions. Examples are the way restaurants are coming in Hebrew, Arabic, and English in Google in Tel Aviv and getting very different representations. We can ask about the concepts and framing that we use to talk about it.
The persistent environmental digital divide
Over 25 years ago, as the web was emerging as a medium for distributing public information, it was promoted as a tool for increased democratisation. From the age of dial-up modem and PCs to the use of mobile phones and smartphones, concerns about digital divides and how they impact the ability of local participation in environmental decision-making never resolved. These digital divides are creating a tapestry of marginalisation through different devices, skills, and communication potentials, and it is valuable to reflect on their dimensions – both technical and social, and consider how we can consider them in a systematic way. The talk will attempt to reflect on technological and social changes and the attempts to address them.
The talk itself started with the vision of Agenda 21 and Principle 10, and the promises that they’ve made about the potential of information to make a transformation in public engagement in environmental decision-making. It then looks at the developments in each time period – the first 10 years to 2002, with rapid development, and examples of the use of the internet and the Web in sharing information, but also challenges of access – that’s the period when concerns over digital divide started emerging. The next decade brings with it promises about open data, but create new challenges – use of smartphones and payment of data access. The digital divide mutates, though the know how is rather similar to the first period. Finally, we get to the last 6 years, where we actually seeing some challenges, such as the closure of some data and risks for the continuation of open data programmes. Overall, we can identify 7 digital divides that are fairly persistent over these 26 years and they raise some issues about the potential of access to environmental information.
Hybrid forms of public participation in Madrid and Taiwan : how can we bridge digital inequalities?
This paper seeks to uncover forms of digital inequalities within new processes of public participation in Madrid and Taiwan (Decide Madrid and vTaiwan).
Preliminary analysis from Taiwan and Madrid – hybrid forms of public participation in Madrid and Taiwan. There are different contexts in global North and global South. The background is that the two cases are linked to the Occupy Movement and opening up democracy – e.g. Indignados/ 15M and Sunflower Movement. With the background, Kinsley suggest that there is a material turn in virtual geography. We get infrastructuring of the digital platforms and to think about the way we can see bridges between digital and material. There is agency of infrastructures – based on Thrift and Star. The concepts provide a basis for understanding the “Decide Madrid” and vTaiwan systems. There is an infrastructure that point to a collaborative process that require people to work together and you are supposed to see a visualisation of where your opinion sit. The Decide Madrid have five processes, and each process include collaboration. In the Decide Madrid, the infrastructure is not only the user interface but also the link to urban space and objects – ballot papers is linked to OCR in order to be input to the system. Another aspect is the invisible infrastructure – the algorithms that show information, sort it and present it. In Decide Madrid, they try to make some of the sorting algorithms visible. The implications – connecting objects and urban spaces is a way to diversify the form of public participation. The infrastructures are becoming political agents – they specify the space of operating and the boundaries. The wider implication – vTaiwan present a post-political community, in which the most influential actors are the powerful citizens and senior politicians – the system is not supposed to disrupt current power structures, where as in Decide Madrid there is participatory budgeting of 100m Eur
Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes
How do smart technologies and policies bed into a city, creating new layers and networks of urban experience and differentiation? SCiM-MK is a social science research project which seeks to answer that question by examining Milton Keynes as a smart city ‘in the making’. Focusing on the citizens, governance, workplaces, data and visualisations of smart, SCiM-MK looks at the social effects of smart city technologies. In particular, SCiM-MK will find out how social difference affects participation in smart, and whether smart creates new forms of social difference.
The results emerge from an ESRC project that look at Milton Keynes development. The city is a living lab for urbanism, and hosting different smart cities activities. From autonomous vehicle to open data. The open data portal is a specific focus. The data hub started as an early data repository, to gather all the data about the city to provide access to information. The portal was used in particular to address issues of social inequality, and data was used by third sector body. Use was done people calling technical people and asking to provide an answer. As apart of the observatory was moved to MK Insight which is done with BT as a commercial data hub, and the assumption is that it will be sold elsewhere. It was design by engineers at BT and OU, with “Will built it and they will come” – dealing with ownership and considering aspects about privacy. There was excitement on the data side, but less on how it is going to be used by non-experts. There is a whole set of activities to make the data available and usable for people “without PhD in computer science” – e.g. an app for elderly people who the young person assumed they need cheap things and toilets, which the user group was not happy with it. The model of the data hub – it is assumed to represent the offline world, and ignores other parts of the world we can make normative claims on how it need to be created to be more representative. Is data actually a thing that can be commodify, or are we think about it as a thing by default? Is the ownership and costs should we ask about it? What we think of as data – with senior managers from engineering and technology background raised the issue of “what data set do we need?” not how many time you jump on a tube – we need to think of selfies, family photos, social media- the rich and detailed way to understand how city function properly. There are issues of privacy, and surveillance that we need to consider. There is always relationality in the city – relationship of giving, and many data feeds are affective and we can think of social media as such. The engagement of people in apps demonstration that it was passion about changing the life and doing something more than just the technology . Two more point: looking at social media, is to think about feminists and researchers of colour – women have feminists accounts and it might be the reasons that we ignore. We can also think about recialisation about who can participate and who can’t. Secondly, there is much more visual
Data-driven urbanism, citizenship and justice
Covering the normative discussion – there are some concepts about smart cities technology – they are influencing across services, government, and infrastructures – from security, to transport, waste, environment, building, homes and civic forms. We also see the data driven urbanism, in the way that you get control rooms of different types with a concept of managing the city through data use – from Rio to dealing with the whole city, to a specific infrastructure (a tunnel). So how are citizens framed and thought about across the technology. The original critique of smart cities was that they are about controlling and creating new-liberal logic of the city – not city focus. The response was to make it citizen-centric or citizen-focused and the question is: did it happen? e.g. how citizens framed, what action they can form? There is too little about identities and exclusion in the smart cities? There is a need to balance state/market/civic society and we need to shape how the negotiations will progress. To answer, we have to think about the citizenship, social justice. The scaffolding of the citizen in the smart city and what is the role as a consumer. As you go through different levels, we have different numbers of participants and their relative influences. We can therefore think of citizenship and social justice – the are different levels and they are trying to get away with “pragmatic” or “practical” and not working through what it mean. When we work through citizenship, we can see Marshall (1950) concepts of civil/legal, political, social and then add to it symbolic, cultural and ask questions on how this is linked and should be operationalised. The smart citizenship is underpinned by neo-liberal concept of citizenship in consumption choice, individual autonomy and civic paternalist way. We also need to think which concept of justice we need to think about distributional, procedural, retributive, restorative. Smith (1994) suggest different models in Geography and Social Justice and there are different models that we need to think about it.
This short intervention will discuss and critique the creation of data-driven urbanism and urban science, focusing on notions of citizenship and social justice. In particular, an argument is made that smart city interventions are underpinned by a narrow instrumental rationality and top-down forms of civic paternalism and stewardship, rather than being rooted in notions of more political and philosophically grounded notions of citizenship, justice, fairness, equity, democracy, and rights. However, while there is some critique of data-driven urbanism that it should be more citizen-centric and just, what that means in theory and practice is rarely articulated. There are many theories of social justice for example – egalitarianism, utilitarianism, libertarianism, contractarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, etc – and of citizenship, and each envisions a different set of principles, rights, entitlements and social relations. In other words, digital justice underpinned by each one of these theories would be markedly different. This then raises the question, so what kind of justice and citizenship are we hoping to enact when we call for digital and spatial justice?
Discussion: A question about data stories and the media – comparing the story of the Chemical Release Inventory and FoE in the 1996, which is clearly to create the opportunity for the government to share information, to the oddities of the data refuge which didn’t look into archiving, FoI, legal instruments, and the rest to gain access to the system. There was also an issue of using proprietary systems for archiving.
The Decide Madrid and vTaiwan are both led by civic hackers from the occupy movement, but the platforms are not that open – they are open to people who know how to code, but for ordinary people the system is not open to change. The balloting with the OCR – if you can only access through paper ballot you need to have the physical access to do the paper for you, and it is therefore both opening and closing the process.
Framing by injustice creating a certain set of problems – to a degree, but getting a purchase on what is happening in systems which are rooted in political ideological – privatisation, control, marketisation, and we need to counter them within their concepts. Notions of participation, citizenship, are not shared by different actors. The issue is problematic in any case. One of the reasons the conversations are difficult is that it is not Habermasian public sphere, rather a very complex ideological space with different motivations.
Methodological approaches to images – the access to it become harder and harder. It got performative aspects. In terms of access and how to access Instagram – lot’s of time it is open and close in different ways. It is a changing field and we need to think about it.
There are questions about representation and the way that it creates inequalities and these representations are creating new ways of injustice and representation. The different sources have different forms of inequalities embedded when we look how they are produced. This is also true for the digital platforms and the way that different people understand systems and how they operate.