13 Aug

Digital Birmingham

The City of Birmingham, UK is working on a significant transformation in image. As it is described on the Digital Birmingham site, the city seeks to transform its industrial past into a digital future. The initiative seeks to tie together all the digital efforts in the city into one portal. Wi-fi initiatives, coupled with resources on online safety, digital film exhibitions, and conferences, are all aggregated through Digital Birmingham. While much of this effort is directed toward PR and tourism, there are other pieces that are legitimately pushing the envelope of participation and transparency in city government. Even those pieces, ironically, that are directed towards PR and tourism.

The Virtual Birmingham initiative is a good example of this. Spearheaded by the company Daden Limited, this initiative is “leading discussions with partners on how Birmingham can be represented and promoted in a 3D virtual environment such as Second Life that would address specific needs from the visitor economy, attracting inward investment and putting Birmingham ‘on the map’.” The results, thus far, are some incredibly interesting designs in Second Life that integrate Google Maps with the virtual environment. The goal here is to make the map immersive – clicking on places and then walking your avatar through them. Currently, in what’s called a “briefing center,” avatars can walk on the map, bring up wikipedia, BBC or CNN newsfeeds, represented by familiar Google placemarkers. When I spoke with David Daden about the project, he expressed interest in turning it into a planning tool – fleshing out the entire map with virtual models to reflect the city’s various uses.

The possibilities here are quite exciting, although I don’t know in what direction the city intends to take this. One could imagine that the Second Life map could function as a portal into a deep urban database, that includes civic information as well as social information. Using the map as the anchor for virtual designs is exactly the right way to go. However, it will take a lot of convincing to get cities to invest in the virtual technologies for the enhancement of their own citizens, as on the surface it appears that the primary use is as spectacle or immersive representation.

That said, my hat’s off to Birmingham, a city that is taking more of a chance than any other I can think of. Certainly, Boston has a ways to go before it adopts virtual (let alone digital) technologies with such enthusiasm.

08 Jan

Mobile Places

I’ve had this question running through my head for some time now: what’s the connection between mobile computing (i.e. cell phones, PDAs, GPS, etc.) and local computing (neighborhood networking, digital civic forums, etc.)? On first blush, these are entirely separate phenomena. But, the more I consider it, the more I see them as parallel. What is truly significant about mobile computing is, in fact, not computing. What is peculiar about mobile computing, is that the computational device is far less important than what the device enables. The device enables people to move without having to carry along their data. As more and more of our data is stored on placeless networks (from Google to Facebook to Flickr), individuals are more free to move from place to place, with the capability of accessing their data wherever they happen to be. But how does that alter the concept of neighborhood networking? Well, if people no longer need to be tied to their data, we might be able to say the same about places. Places are becoming less dependent on spaces. Data about a place, the stuff that enables a meaningful engagement with space, is also stored in a placeless network and accessible from anywhere. This is not to suggest that space no longer matters; only that space is annotated by mobility. The discussions that take place in online forums, the commentary left by bloggers, the reviews of a local restaurant – all of this data, accessible to the individual from multiple locations, thickens engagement with place.

So I’m trying to say something like this: mobility, a cultural phenomenon enabled by new technologies, is transforming how we think about our cities and local places. While it is by no means pervasive, it suggests a promising model for local and community politics.

17 Dec

Hub2 Launch Big Success

Virtual Key
The key is presented to Mayor Menino

Key in Hand
The virtual mayor takes the key to the virtual city

The Hub2 kick-off event was a big success. We had a packed room, both in first and second life, and there was an overall positive reception to the work we are doing. Bill Oates, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Boston, was in attendance to receive the virtual key to the city and the deed to Boston Island. While this was a presentation of very real work done by the participants in both classes, it was also a symbolic event that directed attention to the potential of our methodology and mission. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some promising conversations with both the BRA and the Greenway Conservancy about integrating Hub2 into some aspect of the physical and/or social design process. At the event, we pointed to these potential collaborations and suggested that the work already completed points to the immense potential to harness new and emerging technologies for the enhancement of public life in the City of Boston.

Mayor Sits
The Mayor sits down to talk with his constituents

At the end of what we’re calling the alpha phase of Hub2, six project teams were able to present their work and discuss the implications for urban life in Boston. One of the groups produced this video to capture the intentions of their process and offer suggestions for the urban redesign of City Hall Plaza.

Collaboration Group

click here to watch video

03 Dec

Hub2 To Present Mayor’s Office with the Keys to Virtual Boston

Below is the press release for our event on December 13. Should be a good time. We’re going to say a few words and symbolically hand Boston Island to the service of the City of Boston. There will be a virtual key, and real food.

BOSTON, MA – Hub2 (www.hub2.org), a project involving the City of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), Emerson College, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, will showcase virtual models created by Boston residents to improve the city’s public spaces and present Mayor Menino’s office with the keys to the virtual city.

The event will take place on Thursday, December 13 at 12:30 P.M. in the Charles Beard Room at 80 Boylston St., Emerson College. Guests should contact Eric Gordon at Eric_Gordon@emerson to attend.

In September 2007, Hub2 began hosting workshops at Emerson to foster civic engagement using the virtual world, Second Life. For three months students and residents have been creating three-dimensional immersive models of sites in the Greater Boston Area. Their work will be used by the City of Boston to assist in future development plans for the city.

A total of six projects will be on display ranging from designs of Government Center to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. The Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Judith Kurland; the Chief Information Officer, Bill Oats; and BRA officials will also be in attendance.

# # #

About Hub 2:
Hub2 was founded in 2007 by Emerson College professor, Eric Gordon, Berkman Center Fellow, Gene Koo, and Special Assistant to Boston Mayor Menino, Nigel Jacob. The organization enlists Boston residents to articulate visions of public spaces using virtual three-dimensional worlds. With partnerships and support from members of Emerson College, Harvard University, the City of Boston and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), Hub2 began its work in September 2007. The project aims to help Boston residents take ownership of their public space and facilitate civic engagement with their community.

25 Nov

Urban Communication Foundation Award

Last week I was in Chicago at the National Communication Association conference. I never used to go to this conference, but over the past several years I’ve been attending a pre-conference seminar with this group called the Urban Communication Foundation. It’s an interdisciplinary group of folks who are concerned with the various aspects of communication that are created by or create the urban form. Because of this group, I’ve kind of adopted the NCA as an annual tradition. This year, I was privileged to receive an award for the Hub2 project. I got the “Research Incentive Award,” which carried a $1000 cash prize. It was given to me in recognition of the article Placeworlds (co-written by Gene Koo), and as starter funds for the next phase of the work. This is very encouraging news as we find ourselves in an interesting transition period with the project. The alpha phase is coming to an end. The workshop at Emerson College will culminate in a presentation to city officials on December 13th. We hope to use this event as a launching platform for the next phase – a couple of things are in the works, but nothing is definite at this point.

In any case, I want to extend my gratitude to the UCF folks and thank them for giving us a much needed charge as we seek to build momentum for this project.

26 Oct

Community Networks

In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).

His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.

Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:

“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).

So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.

05 Oct

Hub2 – Entering the Design Phase

SL platforms

For the last four weeks, we’ve been doing some general thinking about how cities, digital networks and virtual worlds might fit together. We’ve talked about the relationship between play and urban spatial practice, and we’ve pondered the general success of the spaces we daily occupy in the city of Boston. Everyone in my class is going to focus on Government Center – the rather unimpressive public space that sits in the city’s center. But, in accordance with program’s methodology, we needed to divide the participants into organic groups. They needed to congeal around certain issues about which they care strongly.

To address this, we created six platforms in Second Life, each with a unique label (play, control, collaboration, dialogue, conflict resolution, and expression). The participants went to the platform that best described their vision for the space. Their avatars assembled and had conversations, and then they went to other platforms to have different conversations. As a means of breaking a large group into smaller groups, I found the process to be absolutely successful. I was impressed with the targeted nature of the dialogue and the spirited debate that ensued. The hour-long exercise resulted in a fairly strong identity for three groups – expression, play, and collaboration.

The discussion will continue in a forum for the next several days, but we hope to have the groups finalized by next week.

01 Oct

Report on Localism

Information Society

Knowledge Politics just released a pamphlet on the topic of “Localism and the Information Society.” This collection of brief essays is motivated by the desire to see better integration of ICTs into neighborhoods and cities. As stated in the introduction:

“new communication tools actually have the ability to strengthen traditional, local relationships. This premise rests on what I believe to be a fundamental truth: that people care about their communities, they feel pride in their home town or village, they want to know the people around them. We may be approaching an era of extra-territoriality, but a community is much more than just a territory.”

This collection provides a wealth of references to local networking organizations in the UK and suggests that there is considerable momentum there on the level of local and regional governments to find positive solutions for the integration of technology into local life. The concept of community networking is distinct from the existing discourse on e-democracy, in that the goal is to orient people locally, not just to enroll them in a-spatial democratic organizations.

As Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone, membership in organizations is actually on the rise (i.e. web-based, interest driven communities), but membership in local groups (i.e. neighborhood associations, local clubs, etc.) is on the decline. So, participatory culture does not necessarily equal civic engagement and, as Putnam explains, does not necessarily lead to an increase in social capital. The intention of sites like UpMyStreet.com and Areyoulocal.co.uk are to provide local connections between people – conceived in direct response to the more generalized community groupings of Myspace, et. al. This kind of site is much more pervasive in the UK than it is in the United States. I’m not sure why. But I find this to be an intriguing question. Perhaps Putnam is correct in assuming that Americans are less socially engaged and therefore less interested in local engagement. Or perhaps it comes down to funding mechanisms that are less established in the United States.

In any case, there are questions that remain about these community networking sites. Do they succeed in creating more engaged citizens? Do they succeed in connecting people to location, or do they merely extend location out into the web? And what does the engaged citizen look like? Do they simply attend more neighborhood socials? Or do they organize other neighbors for political action? The big question for me is: what is the measure of success?

This report is a great place to start to answer some of these questions. One of the proposed solutions to the varied applications for community involvement is the Top-Level Domain (TLD) – a domain that is defined by cities and therefore more capable of organizing incentive for involvement. I’d like to explore this idea further: Do city sponsored domains command more participation than private domains?

30 Aug

More Thoughts on Net-Locality

Allen Smith, who works for WHERE, contacted me about my last post with an interesting corrective:

“I always thought about recent phone technology as allowing the
internet to come out into the world and overlay it with information, I
never thought of it the other way around, “extending the idea and
functionality of location into the network.”

I agree that “net-locality” is about the internet coming out into the world; however, it is equally true that social norms and meanings of physical location are constructing the norms and meanings of networked interaction. In other words, people are compelled to use the tools to assist with the sorts of social interactions they would like to experience in physical space – sharing ideas, sharing places, making plans, and benefitting from the wisdom (or madness) of the crowd. Perhaps it’s like the difference between a manual and electric screwdriver – each can get the job done, but one can do it more efficiently. Net-locality, in some respects, is more efficient location.

My question for Allen, and my question in general is: what’s the relationship between face-to-screen and face-to-face?

If, in fact, net-locality is about more efficient location, how can we keep the technology from displacing us from location? Manuel Castells predicted that the space of flows was to overtake the space of places. But I’m convinced that the space of places continues to influence the meaning of social life – as an idea in the network as much as a physical location. But how is this engineered? It gets back to the above question: if we’re really interested in enhancing human connections and place identification through computer augmentation, how do we negotiate the user’s focus? How do we use the technology to build meaningful places and relationships, and not just meaningful networks?

29 Aug

Location widgets

Location is the next frontier in computing. The company uLocate has announced a competition for developers to make location-based widgets. uLocate’s new location-widget feature, called simply Where, is essentially a collection of little programs that mash-up data from the Internet with a user’s location. And this competition is intended to facilitate the rapid expansion of these widgets within the Where platform. But, what’s the point of these applications besides being clever or cute? What is the social function of location? In other words, what’s the life of these applications in the larger context of mobile computing. Is location truly the holy grail?


Location aware software is net-locality. It is extending the idea and functionality of location into the network. Net-locality can either serve to colonize places into systems (in Habermasian terms), or invigorate places through communication. It depends on context. What is intriguing about the commercial fervor over mobile computing is that the result of net-locality is not considered. The goal is to locate. But the reason for locating is neither here nor there.

Constant access to information is convenient and potentially useful, but when we consider mobile computing, we have to consider how that computation enters into the existing practices of space. For instance, how are people using phones to gather information when in public spaces? Are they looking down and disengaging from their surroundings or are they integrating the tool into the environment? In short, does net-locality hinder engagement with location? If the answer to this question is yes, how can we design spaces or tools that might minimize that result?

There is another interesting tension that I’ve yet to fully explore – and that’s the distinction between business rhetoric and user rhetoric. On one hand, computing has gone mobile. On the other, mobility has extended the functionality of computing. There is a distinction here that I will tease out in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that location is a product – and it is being heavily marketed to unsuspecting consumers.