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.

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.

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?

28 Aug

Putting Theory into Action

Everything is going full speed ahead. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has agreed to fund the first phase of the Hub2 program. They’re going to pay for student tuition, evaluation, TA support and design. It’s great news and we’re thrilled that they’ve taken a chance on this experimental program. Now that the money is in place, we actually have to contend with the realities of starting and managing a successful program. This is the “oh shit” moment. Gene Koo and I have spent countless hours thinking about the theory behind the Hub2 initiative – we have written an article entitled “Placeworlds” that lays out the general theory behind what we’re trying to do, and we have developed a curriculum that will deploy the theory. Now all there is left to do is implement.

This is where all those uncontrollable factors come into play. For instance, there will be sixteen students in the class, all with divergent agendas, there will be snags in the technology, and we will find ourselves in the position of having to compromise the theory for practical application. I know this is all part of the process – and there is much to learn about how people learn and engage with new technologies – but this all becomes more difficult when the theory or methodology is so clear at the beginning. We have to be willing to adapt to unforeseen conditions and more importantly, we have to be willing to acknowledge inaccuracies in our theoretical agenda.

As Labor Day approaches and school begins, we are at the precipice of that exhilirating and horrifiying collision point between theory and practice. I just hope I have to time to process the exhilarating part as I’m sure I’ll be spending much of my time gazing at “the horror, the horror.”

25 Jul

Civic Engagement and Second Life

As city governments explore their role in burgeoning virtual environments, they should see the creation of engaged and active civic groups as primary to their mission. We recently spoke to a reporter from the Boston Globe, who, after getting wind of the proposed project, was hoping to report that the city was moving into Second Life. When we told him that we weren’t interested in getting people to move into virtual space and that we were going to use the tool to help people become more engaged in physical space, he seemed a bit disappointed. I mention this because it demonstrates that virtual environments are still largely powered by their “neat-o” factor. And while this might be an acceptable motivation for business implementation, city governments have to resist this temptation. The role of government in virtual worlds should be to establish public spaces for citizen use. This does not mean that cities should just buy an island in Second Life and let people put stuff there. Good public spaces are not empty spaces; they are structured and programmed to engage individuals and groups without putting extralegal limitations on behaviors and actions. Governments can use virtual worlds to create such spaces.

25 Jul

Hub2

Second Life Emerson islandDespite the fact that the Boston Globe has declared that the city has plans for a full virtual conversion in Second Life, the truth of the matter is its goals are much more modest. Together with my colleage Gene Koo, we are offering two courses at Emerson College with the goal of guiding students and members of the community in the creative re-imagination of the city’s neighborhoods and spaces (using Second Life). From the very beginning of this project, our intention has been to use Second Life as a means of fostering real life civic engagement. We wanted to come up with a methodology that would allow individuals and groups to learn about their everyday spaces from the process of building and inhabiting the virtual environment.

We are calling this the IDEA method. The acronym stands for Imagine, Design, Engage and Activate. The strategy is simple: groups assemble to collectively imagine a particular space, they then design the “virtual equivalent” of that space in Second Life, they then test the space by inviting people to engage it, and finally, they activate that space by figuring out how it translates into real space. This process will unfold over the course of the semester.

We have every expectation that the IDEA method is scalable. During summer 2008, we plan to extend this program to Boston youth. But we understand it as having applications well beyond a single class. We hope that the method can be used by social, planning, neighborhood, or civic organizations who want to engage citizens in decision making beyond the standard yes/no template.

Thus far, we have received very positive feedback on the program. We are still waiting to obtain our first committed funder, and until then, we are riding on the fumes of moral support.

05 Jul

City as Social Network

I recently posted this series of prompts to the iDC discussion list.

Following Google’s acquisition of Feedburner, I want to consider how the threats to privacy that became apparent in that context extend to physical communities (neighborhood, organization, city) that are enabled/bolstered/fortified by social web media.  Many community groups and neighborhood organizations are using digital networking technologies to foster community interaction (http://www.ibrattleboro.com/).  And of course, what is widely known as citizen journalism plays into this as well – placebloggers (http://placebloggers.com) and Community Media organizations tend towards hyperlocal networked content (http://www.cctvcambridge.org/) with an aim towards reinforcing existing geographical connections.  The processes that bind non-geographical communities in networks are similar to those that are binding geographical communities – shared interests, practices, goals, etc.    However, unlike traditional online communities that have a basis in anonymity, digitally annotated physical communities often rely on the full disclosure of identity for their functionality.  For instance, when it comes to neighborhood issues – it is important to know one’s real name and location.

And as city governments are seeking ways to adopt “web 2.0” technologies into their existing “citizen management” projects, the lack of anonymity and the simple traceability of social actions open up new concerns.  Social media tools have the capacity to significantly expand participation in local governance, but they also have the capacity to trace citizen behavior and map social trends.  Cities are interested in this technology for the same reason that corporations are – it offers valuable user data.   Politicians can survey the concerns of their constituency; agencies can identify problems in neighborhoods; and law enforcement…well, there are many scenarios possible.  It can also be turned around: citizens can have greater access to their politicians, and government proceedings can at least have the impression of transparency.

While the conversations on this list have devoted considerable time to corporate surveillance, the question not often asked in this context is what should be made of local surveillance – from the people in one’s neighborhood to city governments?  In the wake of connectivity, discourse and collaboration, there is always documentation, processing and interpretation. From neighborhood chatrooms to local annotated mapping projects to virtual town hall meetings, participation equals surveillance – for better or for worse.

When I consider a digital future in which I want to live – it includes networked access to my neighborhood services, communities, city government and public spaces. However, there is little possibility for that to take place outside of the proliferation of data that would make communities vulnerable to excessive internal and external management. And as citywide wifi and mobile web devices proliferate, the outlets for that recycled data expand.  At the same time, American cities, like corporations, are glomming onto digital media because of its populist resonances.  They are paying attention to online neighborhoods and seeking to aggregate that data into meaningful information.  The ideology of digital media – as evidenced in the phrases “participatory media” and “user-generated content” – is accessibility.  Digital media directly aligns the rhetoric of progress with the rhetoric of populism.  Social web media makes explicit what has only been implied in the recent rhetoric of city governments – that anyone, regardless of social position, can participate in the ordering of city experience and politics.

From cities to towns to neighborhoods, the populist promise of social web media is transforming the nature of public space and civic participation.  I am referring only to the American context, because that’s what I know, but it would be great to engage in comparative dialogue in order to better understand the scope of how these technologies are being officially or unofficially implemented to change perceptions of cities and city life, not to mention public space and community engagement.

I suppose I’ll leave it at that for now.  I look forward to the conversation.

28 May

Boston enters Second Life

Last week, I hosted a meeting at Emerson College to talk about the City of Boston’s entry into Second Life. The good news is this: the city is committed to trying out the platform and to exploring the ways in which it can extend community involvement. At the meeting, we had representatives from the mayor’s office, the Boston Redevelopment Association, the Main Streets Program, the public schools, and the city’s higher education liason. Everyone around the table was intrigued by the possibilities of extending community services to the virtual platform. Some of the ideas that circulated included:

  • building the new city hall on the waterfront
  • building the hatshell on the esplenade as an SL live-music venue
  • building the old south meeting house (or Fanuiel Hall) for town meetings
  • inviting the community to offer suggestions in how the city is represented
  • sponsoring competitions for building out the different neighborhoods
  • establishing the main Boston island as a connector to all Boston-identified builds (i.e. all the colleges and universities, businesses, and neighborhoods that have SL presence will be included in a teleport directory on the main Boston island. We discussed using the subway as the teleportation motif. Avatars would walk down into a station and select from a list of places in or around the city of Boston

One of the most important aspects of our conversation was the idea that the SL initiative would be connected to a broader platform of community networking. We discussed the possibility of creating an open-source community portal software that would be made available to neighborhood organizations to get them started in their online presence. These organizations would be connected to SL in a very fluid way. The idea would be to establish a steady flow in and out of world.

There is a lot of planning left, including issues of how it gets built, maintained and governed. But I think this was a positive start to what can be an amazing connection between city government, civic culture, and networked community.