Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The urban geography of attitudes to marriage equality (or, did car drivers vote 'no'?)

Yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced the results of the postal survey it was directed to conduct by the Turnbull Government about the Marriage Act. Across Australia, 61.6% supported changing the Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry. Yay!

But the uneven geography of this vote has also attracted attention. The 'Yes' vote was slightly lower in NSW - largely because 12 of the 17 Commonwealth electorates that had majority 'No' votes were in NSW, and specifically, in Western Sydney. This map of survey results has been doing the rounds:

Map of Survey Results in Sydney. Source: https://marriagesurvey.abs.gov.au/results/response-map.html

There are some particularly sharp divides here. Grayndler (not named in the map above, it is the purple electorate that sits in between Sydney and Watson) had a high 'Yes' vote of almost 80%. Watson, right next door, had a high 'No' vote of around 70%.

So, what should we make of this difference? How should we try to explain it? A few articles are popping up on the theme....

In this piece in the Guardian, Sam Dastayari - a Labor Senator from the region - argues that people in the region tend to be socially conservative. As for why this is so, he is quoted as saying: "The only demographic indicator that matters is ethnicity", and that any explanation based on a single religion would be incorrect. "[It’s across the board – Muslim, the Coptics, Christians, communities from migrant backgrounds contributed to voting no."

Likewise, Andrew Jakubowicz writes in The Conversation that "social conservatism among many ethnic communities loomed large as a factor" in the 'No' vote in Western Sydney". But he tells us not to essentialise this conservatism, and suggests a range of factors that might explain it:
The opposition to same-sex marriage ... was particularly resonant in communities where people have fairly poor educational backgrounds, somewhat limited English language skills and their information is mediated primarily through religious institutions.

So, in localities where there are strong communities built around Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Eastern Catholicism, African Christianities, Asian Christianities (ranging from Catholic to Evangelical), and even in other areas with pockets of Orthodox Judaism, there were singular funnels of information presented in cultural and moral terms.

There’s little information available to those people from any other source that they would trust, or to which they have easy access.
He goes on to argue that "It is important not to allow stereotypes to overwhelm analysis", and that "This is not simply about religion; it’s about culture in a more complex sense".

My colleague Dallas Rogers has written a piece for the ABC which seeks to head-off the stereotypes of those in 'the west' that are ever-present in discussions of Sydney's urban geography, and which are being hastily mobilised in some of the initial reactions to the poll. He worries that:
The discussion about the No vote will almost certainly follow a familiar narrative: the west is full of variously conservative new migrants, old people and ethnic and religious minorities. Religious and migrant media will come under fire. The familiar troupe of derogatory Westie, migrant and religious discussion will follow.
Dallas doesn't seek to explain away the poll results. Indeed, he identifies himself as a Westie who voted Yes, and as one who is disappointed by the results in this part of Sydney. But he makes a really important point when noting that:
The temptation might be to think about the diverse peoples and communities of western Sydney as the sole custodians of their views.
While the vote was clearly uneven, there were lots of 'No' votes from people outside Western Sydney, and lots of 'Yes' votes from people in Western Sydney, so we should not fall into the trap of focusing only on the colours of that map above. He also goes on to point out what we might forget now that the results are in -- that this postal poll was an incredibly divisive political tactic deployed by the Turnbull Government, which many have criticised for the fear-mongering and hate that it unleashed.


So, while it's tempting to try to explain the unevenness of the vote with reference to some of the rather obvious correlations between the poll results and the socio-demographic characteristics of an electorate derived from the 2016 Census, it's best not to jump to easy and unsupported conclusions.

Sure, there are significant differences in factors like religion, income, and education between majority 'Yes' electorates in inner urban areas like Sydney and Grayndler, and majority 'No' electorates in Western Sydney like Watson and Blaxland:


Sydney
Grayndler
Watson
Blaxland
No Religion (%)
43.7
40.7
15.6
13.4
Avg Weekly Income ($)
933
997
490
462
Bach Degree or Higher (%)
43.8
42.6
22.9
17.3
English only Spoken at Home (%)
51.0
66.5
28.5
25.5

There are also some data that are surprising. For instance, of these four electorates, Sydney has the lowest percentage of people born in Australia:



Sydney
Grayndler
Watson
Blaxland
Born in Australia
39.2
59.1
44.4
43.9

But before we start reading explanations from these correlations, note that there are also stark differences in other characteristics of the majority 'yes' and 'no' electorates, like public transport usage:
 

Sydney
Grayndler
Watson
Blaxland
Public Transport to Work
35.7
38
25.2
21.3

Were people in Western Sydney more likely to vote 'no' because of their education levels, or because they are more likely to drive a car to work? There's a good correlation for both, but I haven't seen anyone try to explain the results in Western Sydney with reference to public transport usage! That's because, as they say, correlation does not equal causation...

More sophisticated analyses are going to be required to better understand which of any correlations might have some explantory relevance. And of course, such an analysis would need to take account of a range of other factors beyond simple demographic differences.

For instance, in his piece in Junkee, Osman Faruqi argues that:
The huge variation in the result across electorates has a number of factors, but is partly driven by the fact the No campaign appeared to focus its resources on migrant and non-English speaking communities while the Yes campaign spent its time and energy turning out the vote rather than convincing people to change their position on the issue.
I don't whether this is right, but it certainly does stand to reason that we'd need to look at the geography of the campaigns and information if we're interested in the geography of the result.

Sounds like something for some human geography students to get getting on with...!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Contesting bus privatisation in Sydney



Back in May, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced plans to go to competitive tender for buses in the inner west of Sydney - effectively privatising bus services in that densely-populated region.

(In Sydney, bus services in different parts of the city are divided up into 'contract regions'. The government-owned State Transit Authority (STA) currently holds the contract to provide services in four of those regions. Region 6 is the one to be privatised. On average, there are around 3.5 million trips on buses in this region every month - making it the second busiest contract region in Sydney, after the STA-run Region 9 in the city's east.)

Sydney bus contract regions: STA regions 6-9 in blue


This is the latest in a long line of privatisations of urban infrastructures by this government: electricity infrastructure, crown land, government-owned buildings, train lines, ferries, hospitals, land titles registry, public housing all over the city (especially inner city) to name a few. A defining characteristic of their policy agenda is to shrink the role and assets of the public sector.

A terrific union-community campaign is taking shape to oppose this move, and to fight for publicly-owned and operated public transport that serves the public good. Drivers walked off the job for 24 hours the day after the announcement. A couple of weeks later, they swapped their uniform for Hawaiian shirts, switched off the Opal machines that collect fares, and handed out leaflets about the privatisation to happy commuters travelling for free. This month, there's been leafletting at bus stops, letterbox drops, a social media campaign, and well-attended community meetings across the affected area.

I was honoured to be invited to talk to a community meeting about the issue that took place in Pitt St Uniting Church on 28 June, alongside union leaders, community leaders, and politicians from both Labor and the Greens. Here's the long version of what I said, including links to sources. It's a critical analysis of the main arguments being used to support the privatisation.

**

I’m here to offer some critical analysis of the case for privatization that has been made by the Transport Minister, Andrew Constance, and his supporters.

There’s a lot at stake here. Tonight we’re talking about the privatization of buses in Sydney’s inner west. But if this goes ahead, it won’t end there. Back in March, Minister Constance told the Australian Financial Review that: “In 10 to 15 years' time government will not be in the provision of transport services”.

He has been strongly supported in this by the Tourism Transport Forum (TTF), a lobby group of tourism and transport operators. Last year, the TTF produced a report on "the benefits of private sector involvement in the delivery of bus services", urging governments around Australia to divest from public ownership and operation of bus services. When Constance made his announcement about inner west buses, they were highly supportive, and urged him to go further: “Today’s announcement the NSW Government will franchise the Inner West STA region is a very good start that hopefully signals a shift towards franchising more and more regions in due course.”

Four main arguments have been used to justify this privatisation. So let's do some fact-checking.

Claim #1: Inner west buses attract more complaints than privately-operated buses

In announcing the planned privatisation, Minister Constance frequently cited the high level of complaints received in about buses in Region 6 - for instance, telling the ABC: "If you consider that the private sector's had 19,000 complaints statewide verse 12,000 in this one region alone something had to give, and when it's complaints about buses not turning up, poor performance, we need to take action for our customers."

Now, it's not easy to check this claim, as the complaint data has not been made public by Transport for NSW. I have asked for the data, and have been told by Transport for NSW that I will need to lodge a Freedom of Information request, which I plan to do.

Guardian journalist Nick Evershed has seen, and analysed, the complaints data. He found that once you take account of the much higher number of passengers that use public buses in Region 6, they don’t receive way more complaints than private buses. Here's his figures:

Nick Evershed analysis of bus complaints. Source: Guardian Australia

This analysis undermines the Minter's claims. Indeed, he surely knew he was bending the truth in citing those statistics out of context.

What's more, the Minister's point makes little sense until we know more about the reasons for those complaints. For example, it’s possible that they’re about buses running late, or being full – factors that are beyond the control of the STA and its drivers. This leads to the second claim...

Claim #2: Inner west buses run late more often than privately-operated buses

The privatisation announcement included the claim that buses in the inner west had one of the worst on-time running performance results in 2016.

Well, this claim is technically true. But, as with the claim about complaints it is also pretty meaningless, when the data is offered without any context. Traffic congestion is also much worse in parts of the city covered by public buses. I have crunched some numbers from the Roads and Maritime Services Roads Report. For the period June 2016-May 2017, in the morning peak, traffic crawled along at an average of 54% of the speed limit in parts of the city where public buses operate. In less congested private bus areas, it averaged 62% of speed limit. Congestion influences on-time performance, having effects on punctual departures and keeping to timetabled stops.

On-time running 2016 x AM peak road congestion 2016-17. STA Regions shaded in blue. Sources: Transport for NSW Performance Reports; Roads and Maritime Services Roads Report

So, given the different road conditions across the city, it's just not meaningful or reasonable to compare on-time performance in congested and less congested areas.

Claim #3: Public buses cost more than privately-operated buses

As with all privatisation debates, supporters are talking up the financial benefits of expanding the role of private operators in Sydney's bus network. But their claims in this case are overblown, and/or blinkered.

Tourism Transport Forum CEO Margy Osmond was quoted on ABC news saying that "With a complete franchising of the bus service here in New South Wales, on the basis of research we did at the end of last year, it could mean up to a billion dollars over a five-year period for the NSW Government."

Well, actually, their research did not show that at all. It purported to show that a privatisation of all publicly-owned buses across Australia (ie, not just in Sydney and Newcastle, but in Brisbane, Canberra and Hobart) would save governments up to $1 billion over 5 years (see TTF, On the Buses, p. 4). Back in February, before being in the trenches defending the Minister, Osmond had said full bus privatisation in NSW could generate up to $500 million in savings over the 5 year period.

So ... what's half a billion among friends? Either way, these are big numbers. On what basis are such savings claimed?

The TTF never breaks down their calculations in its report, but it cites a 2005 journal article by Hensher and Wallis in support of its claims about the financial savings associated with privatisation. I've had a read of that article. And while Hensher and Wallis are by no means opponents of bus privatisation, their position is far more nuanced and critical than one might think from reading the TTF report. In particular, they identify several deficiencies in the process of competitive tendering for bus services that are relevant to our situation here in Sydney.

First, they note that the evidence on cost-savings is not particularly reliable. Indeed, they put the word 'evidence' in scare-quotes when discussing cost-savings (p. 300).

Second, while they certainly do think that competitive tendering seems to have generated savings where it has been implemented, they note some concerns about how such savings have been achieved in different contexts. In some contexts, particularly developing contexts, this has been achieved by driving down wages (p. 314). They also worry that "Although competitive tendering is market driven at the time of bidding, given the dominating focus on cost efficiency, it generally provides the wrong set of incentives to do more in line with social obligations or external benefits" (p. 318).

Third, they note that while there are often significant savings in the short-term from competitive tendering of bus services, the long-term is another story: "Evidence is accumulating of cases where some of the initial cost savings through CT are eroded through cost escalation in subsequent tendering rounds" (p. 313).

The competitive tendering of bus services in London in the 1980s provides a case of some of these points. There, it was reported that there was a significant 50% unit cost reduction in bus services between 1985 and 2000. A major factor was a reduction in labour costs. Another factor was a substantial increase in farebox cost recovery - a growth of 60-95% that does not seem to be accounted for by the increase in patronage of 12%, but by higher fares. Further, in the five years from 1995-2000, costs were back on the rise, at an average of 10% per year (pp. 301, 306).

Another case a bit closer to home is Perth. Bus services were privatised there in the 1990s. The TTF report points to cost reductions in the first decade of private contracting (p. 12). But costs have risen since then. The cost per passenger kilometre of bus services run by private operators in Perth has more than doubled since 2002, a rate of increase much higher than inflation over that period.

Perth, Bus Costs per Passenger Kilometre, 2002-2016. Sources: WA Public Transport Authority Annual Reports, Reserve Bank Inflation Calculator

As I noted above, Hensher and Wallis are far from advocates of public ownership (much less nationalisation!). But their review comes to the conclusion that a system of 'negotiated contracts' with established providers might be a more effective way to ensure cost efficiencies are matched with effective services levels that meet the important social obligations of a good public transport system.

Guess what we currently have with the STA for Regions 6-9 in Sydney? A negotiated contract, of course! And that negotiated contract has in fact been delivering performance improvements and cost reductions, through the hard work of staff, over the past several years.

Indeed, even the Tourism Transport Forum is forced to admit, in a small-print footnote on the last page of their report: "Sydney buses has begun to reduce its operating costs during 2013/2014, somewhat closing the gap to the private sector" (p. 31). These reductions have continued since then. It was being reported last year that as a result of these reductions, which were often painful for staff, in-principle agreement had been reached between the Government and STA to extend the STA's contracts for a further five years from 2017 with competitive tendering.

Now, Minister Constance is saying that the cost reductions have not gone far enough, and that STA buses still cost more to run than privately-operated buses in the rest of the city. Well, of course they do! The STA also happens to run a much more frequent service than those private operators - with regular services all the way from 5am to midnight, as we found when we mapped public transport frequencies for the Sydney Alliance a few years ago (see below). Benchmarking the STA against private operators with much less frequent services is just not reasonable.

Areas in purple = areas within 400m of public transport that has frequency of at least 15 minutes between 5am and midnight - note the overlap of high frequency parts of the city with STA contract areas. Source: Troy and Iveson for Sydney Alliance

Even the hard-line economists at the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal recognised in their 2015 report into the efficiency of NSW public transport services  that you could not directly benchmark the STA against private operators (pp. 52-57). While they attempted to take account of congestion and weekend services in their comparison, they too failed to take any account of the higher frequency of STA services during the average weekday. So IPART's conclusion that STA buses are less efficient than private operators is flawed. It does not value the STA's role in running more expensive bus services early in the morning and late into the evening. These non-peak services provide an essential social and economic service to the city - for shift-workers, people participating in the 'night-time economy', and many more besides. So comparing public and private here is like comparing apples and oranges.

Phew!

Claim #4: The private sector provides more innovative services

Finally, both the Minister and the TTF make the claim that the private sector will provide more innovative service offerings. The Minister, in particular, seems very enamoured of 'on-demand' bus services - in which passengers can effectively hail a small bus that could adjust its route in real-time. For him, cracking open the market to the private sector might allow such wonders to emerge.

Such services have been trialled now in a few cities – for example, in Helsinki (in a scheme called Kutsuplus that was run by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority), and in Boston, Washington and Kansas by a company called Bridj. There was plenty of hype about all of these services when they started up. But Kutsuplus, Bridj, and other similar services like Split have all fallen apart in the past few months. Evidently, the subsidies per rider were simply too high. In Kansas City, Bridj services (which were offered in partnership with the public transit authority there, and at least offered union jobs to drivers) were apparently being subsidised to the tune of $1000 per rider in the first six months of their operation. The public authorities and the venture capitalists who were funding the schemes eventually cut their losses.

Surely there are some lessons to be learnt here. It seems that right now, these on-demand, app-enabled mini-buses are no match for mass public transport in dense urban environments, from a cost perspective. So far, it seems the private sector is having no more luck delivering some of these techo-fantasies than the public sector.

Beyond the techno-fantasies, there's plenty of evidence for publicly-owned transport operators providing great, innovative services right here in Australia. Brisbane offers another example of this. There, the publicly-owned service includes a sector-leading Bus Rapid Transit network.

Conclusion: What kind of public transport do we want?

So, the case for privatisation has some big holes in it.

This is not to say that buses in the inner west, or anywhere else in Sydney, are perfect. Far from it.

But as we’ve been arguing in the Sydney Alliance for some years now, the biggest improvements we could make to public transport in Sydney are about filling the gaps in the network. We need to make sure that everyone is in walking distance to frequent public transport services, that form a coordinated network across the city that can get people wherever they need to go, whenever they need to travel.

That’s the job of … the government! It’s the government who ultimately has responsibility for network planning and service levels.

It seems that Minister Constance and Premier Berejiklian are trying to deflect our attention away from their failings to deliver the integrated network they promised in a series of previous plans. Worse still, they’re trying to redirect our frustration towards the drivers who deal with lousy Sydney traffic on our behalf, and the staff who keep those buses safe and clean.

I’m so heartened to see people in our city not failing for this attempt to divide us, sticking together with the drivers and maintenance workers and demanding that our public buses remain in public hands, serving the public good. And I look forward to working with you as we get ourselves organised to assert and win this demand.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Down to Earth Podcast on Urban Environmental Politics

For the past few months, I've been co-hosting a fortnightly segment on FBi Radio 94.5FM, based here in Sydney, called Down to Earth. It's a segment about stuff we can do to make cities fairer and more sustainable. So far we've talked about a bunch of things, from the recent re-emergence of green bans in Sydney (of course!), to disposable coffee cups and plastics waste, urban beekeeping, driverless cars, the public transport experience, and smart phones (their production, consumption and recycling...).

It's been heaps of fun putting these segments together, and Alex Pye has been an awesome person to work with. We're on every first and third Thursday morning of the month at 10am.

I'm happy to say Down to Earth has now been made into a podcast: you can access it here, for iTunes and Android. Yay! Thanks to Andrew and the team at FBi for getting this up and running, and for getting a bunch of the past episodes up online...


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pokémon GO and public space

 Pokémon GO players gather at Peg Patterson Park in Rhodes, Sydney. Source: ABC

In an earlier post here, I argued that Pokémon GO involves players in a form of 'playbour', because playing the game involves the production of geospatial data that is owned and can be traded by the game's creator, Niantic.

In this post, I want to take a look at a related set of issues that have arisen with the rapid and massive popularity of this game. If Pokémon GO has figured out a way to encourage and then profit from our explorations of public space, what else does the game have to teach us about public space in our digitally 'augmented' urban playgrounds?

**

Pokémon GO is an 'augmented reality' app, and is by far the most popular application of this technology that we've seen. 'Augmented reality' (AR) makes use of internet connectivity, location awareness and cameras on smartphones to allow people to view digital images and information that have been layered onto the 'real' physical environment.

A few years ago, AR was going to be the next big thing in digital tech. But things didn't quite go as predicted, and more recently, we started seeing more and more commentary on the failure of AR to live up to that hype. Now, with the massive popularity of Pokémon GO, it seems to be back with a bullet.

At least three fascinating issues concerning Pokémon GO and public space have arisen in the past few weeks, and I think they illustrate some broader issues that are pertinent for discussions of augmented reality in urban environments.

1. Where are the Pokémon? On the uneven distribution of digital 'augmentation' across public spaces

So, are there Pokémon in your neighbourhood? Of course, as the game is rolled out across different markets at different times, this will depend in the first instance on whether or not the game has come to your country! (Africa, you're still waiting! You too, India and China. CNET are keeping an updated list of countries where you can (officially) play the game here.)

But even if the game is available in your city, we are seeing that some neighbourhoods are full of Pokémon and PokéStops, while in other places there are less to find.

This interesting article from the US by Christopher Huffaker makes some very interesting observations about the locations of key sites or 'portals' in an augmented reality game called Ingress. This matters for our discussion because Ingress is a predecessor to Pokémon GO, was developed by the same operator (Niantic), and its geospatial data has been used to set locations for key sites in Pokemon GO like PokéStops and Gyms. Huffaker argues there are fewer portals in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods of large US cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago. Researchers at the Urban Institute in Washington DC have done their own maps, and have come to similar conclusions.

Now, no-one is suggesting that a group of nasty people working for Niantic sat down and plotted out an uneven, racialised distribution of Pokémon GO sites to make it harder to play in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods. But that's the whole point. When crowds are used to source data, the data is only as inclusive as the crowd. And because Ingress tends to be played by a quite specific kinds of people, Pokémon data reflects those demographics.

More broadly, we might also observe that when algorithms are used to turn such data in geospatial information, the data is only as inclusive as the parameters that have been coded for the algorithms. The algorithmic nature of the game information is also most likely the explanation for the various stories appearing about 'inappropriate' game locations, like memorials and some secure sites -- not to mention suburban parks that might not have the infrastructure to cope with hoards of people trying to hang out there (more on that one below).

For most of us, it's very difficult to get a grip on the way such algorithms work. Even if we could get corporations or governments to share their code, those lines of code only make sense to those with the specialist skills to understand how they work. There's a growing literature on the role of algorithms in the governance of cities and populations. That literature suggests that as algorithms become ever more important in informing and even automating decision-making and resource allocation, we might want to know a little more about how they work, and how their injustices can be made visible and contested. The discussion about the location of key sites in Pokémon GO certainly illustrates the kinds of things that are at stake.

There are two more points to note about the location of important sites in the game. First, the geography of the game is likely to change as more sponsorship deals are done between Niantic and those seeking to lure players to their location. As has been widely reported, the first of these major deals was done with McDonalds in Japan, and many more are set to follow - Niantic's John Hanke says that this is his preferred means of raising revenue. Shops and advertisers can also spend money to buy and then set lures for players. So, for all the hype about the way that this game is encouraging people to explore their urban environment, we might want to ask some questions about how those explorations are being guided as the digital geography of the game is further commercialised.

Second, a conflict has emerged between Niantic and a numbers of fan websites that had been providing real-time maps of Pokémon locations, by scraping data from the game. As reported by CNET and others, it appears that Niantic have found a way to prevent tracking sites like Pokevision accessing their locational data, and made a few legal threats to those sites while they are at it. The operators of Pokevision wrote an open letter to Hanke and Niantic about the shut down. Hanke and Niantic responded with a blog post claiming that they'd taken the action to reduce pressure on their servers, which have been melting down frequently. This conflict over the openness of the game's location data is an interesting one. This is a game operated by a commercial gaming company, so to what extent do the usual arguments about 'open data' apply? Interestingly, those running the tracking sites are arguing that their access should be maintained because it will enhance the playability of the game, especially while the tracking feature continues to have problems. This interesting conflict is to be continued, I'm sure...

2. Who can access the Pokémon? On uneven access to public space in cities of inequality

Not everyone who walks around a city staring at their phone searching for Pokémon will have the same experience of this 'play'. To play this game is to walk around an urban environment in search of Pokémon, PokéStops and Gyms. Indeed, the game also rewards you for the steps you take while playing it, with those steps helping you to hatch eggs. (A brilliant way to ensure that your geographical data can be captured, by the way ... but that's another story.)

Niantic and the game's supporters are talking up the social and the health benefits of this kind of play -- if millions of people are now out and about in their public spaces, exploring places they have never been, meeting other players and getting exercise at the same time, then everyone wins, right?

Well, sort of. Here's where Pokémon GO interacts with the broader politics of public space. As we know from decades of research on this topic, public spaces in our cities are not equally accessible to everyone.

Again in the United States, there has been some critical discussion about the experience of 'Pokémoning While Black'. In Iowa City, Faith Joseph Ekakite shared this account of being stopped and searched at gunpoint by police while playing the game in a park. Omari Akil wrote this widely-reported account of his unease while playing the game, fearing that Pokémon GO could be a death sentence for black men, given the on-going problem of police shootings in the US.

Not surprisingly, there has also been some discussion of the potential vulnerability of children playing the game, and the potential for them to be 'lured' to locations where they might be targeted for their smartphone or something else. Here,

There seems to have been less discussion of the gendered politics of playing Pokémon in public space. A recent report suggests that female players outnumber male players by a ratio of almost 2 to 1. If that's true, I'll admit that it challenges my own assumptions about the gendered nature of both gaming and public space.

In fact, this finding raises the question of whether Pokémon GO game play might actually help to address, rather than reinforce, some of the exclusionary aspects of public space that I've mentioned above. Anecdotally, some people playing the game tell me that it has given them and their friends a kind of 'license' to be in various places that they would not normally go, like parks and residential streets late at night. They say they can do so because they know there will be other people around also playing, and so places will be less scary than they might otherwise have been. Are the eyes on the screen are also 'eyes on the street', in a Jane Jacobs kinda way? Will this actually help to make public spaces more accessible, by being more used?

3. Whose infrastructure supports the game? On the public-private relationship in augmented urban spaces

Niantic provides the digital data and server infrastructure that enables people to play the game as they move around their environment. But as Pokémon GO turns the streets and parks and malls of the city into a playground, who provides the playground? The game takes-for-granted the existence of 'physical' public spaces and their infrastructures, and makes no particular contribution to their provision or maintenance.

On the surface, this doesn't seem unreasonable -- after all, public space is notionally meant to be accessible to all, right? So why shouldn't it be available for play (or playbour)?

However, it's clear that in some instances, the popularity of the game has actually put some public spaces under considerable pressure. Here in Sydney, an everyday park in suburban Rhodes that most people had never visited or even heard of was inundated with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Pokémon GO players in search of rare Pokémon that were concentrated in the area. Word of the bounty on offer in the park spread quickly through social media, so this was a classic example of a nimble, digitally-connected crowd in formation and action.

Residents complained of noise and litter. At one point, they took to throwing water bombs from their balconies late at night to try to clear the park. Police were called, and they issued parking infringements to try to move people on.

As several players pointed out, there were no fights, no violence, no crime, and this is meant to be public space ... so what's the problem?

But it's also true that the crowds had some impacts on the park. The picture below accompanied an article on one local website about the issue -- the park does seem kinda messed up.



While maintaining local parks is one of the responsibilities of public authorities, and while those parks are there to be used by 'the public', this little episode demonstrates some of the complex geographical dimensions of urban publicness

I think we do need to resist the idea that this park somehow 'belongs' to the 'local' public, and the associated logic that people coming from 'elsewhere' is a problem in itself. Nor would I want to see any kind of 'users pays' logic be introduced to park use in Sydney, or elsewhere.

But what of the private commercial entities who are making lots of money, but who are not actually making any contribution to support the urban environment that supports their game? Yes, there is socialisation going on here, but there is also commercialisation (something can be two things at once!). And where there's commercialisation, it's not necessarily unreasonable for the public authorities to seek some kind of contribution or compensation. Money for growing trees doesn't grow on trees, if you know what I mean.

Earlier this year, Evgeny Morozov made the case in a piece for the Guardian that the tax-dodging and tax-minimising practices of huge digital corporates like Uber and Google was actually contributing to the hollowing out of state capacity to fund public services like transport. It's a question worth asking: while Pokémon GO might be enhancing some people's experience of public space, but should we expect some financial contribution from the game's owners to sustaining the playground for their very profitable game?

**

So, there you go. Across these three sets of issues, we can see that the game's popularity throws up some new questions about public space in networked cities, but also draws us into some very old questions about the city's streets and their accessibility. It's only a game, I know. But as our experience of public space is increasingly mediated through digital connectivity, it's a game that does have something to teach us about how the urban experience is being transformed through collisions of the digital and the urban.

In finally finishing this piece, I've also come across a few other interesting articles specifically on the issue of Pokémon GO and public space that are worth checking out:

Sunday, August 14, 2016

McKenzie Wark on Judith Butler on Assembly and The Street

Street sculpture and tents, Hong Kong 2014. Source: Mapping the Umbrella Movement



McKenzie Wark has written a great review of Judith Butler's 2015 book "Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly" over at Public Seminar.

Butler's book includes a chapter called 'Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street', that appeared online a couple of years back as a talk given by Butler in the wake of events like Tahir and Occupy. Once I got over my initial jilted geographer's reaction of 'hey, you realise a few other folks have been thinking about public space and politics since Hannah Arendt?', I got heaps out of the Butler piece (it's *Judith Butler* writing about public space and politics, after all!). In particular, I really like the way she works with (and past) Arendt's approach to the 'space of appearance', focusing attention on the 'infrastructure' that is produced and sustained to support that appearance: as she puts it, "the material supports for action are not only part of the action, but they are also what is being fought about".

Anyway, one of the passages in Wark's review that really stuck out for me was this:
For Butler, “the media have entered into the very definition of the people.” (20) Might it not rather be the other way around? There is a sort of latent Platonism at work here, where the bodies gathered in and as a body, come first, and their mediated double second. But surely it is the other way around in any modern polity. The media are the primary space; public squares and so forth are sets for media performances. One cannot simply add media onto some fantasy of the Greek polis and call it modern politics. The thing to occupy is media time; the way to do it is to take space. It is not the case that “the media extends the scene.” (91) The scene is a retroactive production of media. If an assembly gathered and nobody noticed, did it make a sound?
This is a great provocation about the relationship between the urban and the media in public formation and politics. I can get with the idea that maybe the bodies don't come first, prior to some subsequent mediation, and I think Wark's point here is really important. But I'm not sure I can get with the follow-up claim Wark makes here that: "the thing to occupy is media time; the way to do it is to take space", and that argument that urban public spaces are now primarily "sets for media performances".

Sure, many occupations and assemblies are indeed 'staged' with their 'screening' in mind, and media narratives clearly shape and frame actions staged in the streets -- so I agree that efforts to claim media space/time are a constitutive element in the production of many political events in public spaces, not a secondary or subsequent process.

But in the occupations that we have witnessed across this decade, I think there are plenty of things going on that don't conform to this formulation either. Sometimes, the bodies assembled together are constantly moving between practices that sustain the physical space of occupation, and practices that reach out beyond that space in the process of representation and claim-making. 'Urban' and 'media' spaces are mixed together in different combinations to achieve these dual ends. Just as some actions are clearly staged in a physical public space in a manner calculated to find an audience via mass/niche/social media as Wark argues, so too various media are put to work in the service of maintaining what Butler calls the 'infrastructure' of assembly/occupation (eg via social media call-outs for resources/food, defence against police, etc). Theses processes of social reproduction in an assembly/occupation are not exclusively undertaken just to sustain the space that can occupy media time. They are also frequently understood as prefigurative experiments with different (more just) ways of being together, and therefore as political ends in themselves (for some great images of this in action at Occupy Wall St, see Alison Young's blog post over on Images to Live By).

So, as I tried to argue in this short piece written a little while back, I think it's a dead end to get into an argument about 'which comes first?', the city (ie Butler's bodies in a physical geography) or the media (ie Wark's mediated presence with its virtual geography). An approach that focuses on interaction and co-production seems much more promising.

Wark's review comes under the title "what the performative can't perform", meaning that for him Butler's frame is too focused on embodied performativity at the expense of a consideration of the performativity of infrastructure (including media). But in Publics and the City, when I was trying to think through the co-constitution of embodied and mediated forms of 'being public', I actually found some work in Performance Studies very helpful - in particular, Philip Auslander's 1999 book Liveness - Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Writing to a performance/theatre studies audience, he argued against the idea that live theatre has more 'radical' potential than mediatised performance on the basis of its 'liveness' and the embodied co-presence of performers and their audience. Rather, he insists, the very idea of 'liveness' is a function of mediatisation, precisely because "mediatisation is now explicitly and implicitly embedded within the live experience" (eg think about the way live events incorporate media, the way they are staged with mediation in mind, etc). In Auslander's book, this passage really stuck out for me:
any distinction [between live and mediatised performances] needs to derive from careful consideration of how the relationship between the live and the mediatized is articulated in particular cases, not from a set of assumptions that constructs the relation between live and mediatized representations a priori as a relation of essential opposition.
I think this is a great warning against any theoretical prioritisation of embodied co-presence or mediatisation.

In this vein, one of the points I took from Butler's book was her linking of bodies and media in assemblies. In noting that assemblies circulate via media, she also points out that:
there remains something localized that cannot and does not travel in that way; and the scene could not be the scene if we did not understand that some people are at risk, and the risk is run precisely by those bodies on the street. If they are transported in one way, they are surely left in place in another, holding the camera or the cell phone, face to face with those they oppose, unprotected, injurable, injured, persistent, if not insurgent. It matters that those bodies carry cell phones, relaying messages and image..." (9).
This passage brought a bunch of memories flooding back for me ... of sitting at my computer in Sydney, transfixed by the #ows twitter stream during the infamous march across the Brooklyn Bridge in which hundreds were arrested, half a world away. I was there in one sense, and they were with me ... but in another sense, of course, we really were worlds apart. Me, in a comfy office, reading live media accounts from people being violently blocked and arrested by police.

Now, Wark might say this is exactly his point (ie that those bodies were taking risks in public space precisely in order to capture media time). Fair enough. But I guess I feel as though taking a little of both Butler and Wark together could actually be quite fruitful for those of us trying to think through the urban/media interface in politics right now.

In any case, Wark's review is going to have me dipping back into some of his previous writing on media, vectoral power, etc. (I just read his latest book Molecular Red, which I loved for many reasons ... not least for some unexpected and evocative personal recollections on his time in the offices of the Communist Party of Australia back in the day when the green bans were in full swing!).

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Politics of Pokémon GO on The Stream

Right then, this was fun. The Sydney Morning Herald piece on Pokemon GO got picked up by the lovely people at The Stream on Al Jazeera, and I was just involved in an interesting panel discussion on the game and its politics.

The 30 minute discussion covered political appropriations of the game, the apparently racialised uneven distribution of PokeStops and Gyms in the game, the accessibility of public space, data privacy and monetisation, the present and future of augmented reality, and other interesting stuff.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Pokémon GO: Geospatial data and digital labour in the urban playground

So ... Pokémon GO has been a thing, right?!

The article below was published as an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. It's included here with active links for anyone who's interested. It's about the way the game turns play into a kind of 'digital labour', through the collection and monetisation of data about our movements through the urban environment.

I've got a bit more to say about the game ... I really do think it has plenty to teach us about the on-going digitalisation of everyday urban life. More to follow soon.



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As Pokémon GO maintains its place at the top of the app charts, and as our streets and parks are increasingly populated by screen-illuminated trainers trying to find and evolve their digital critters, it’s time to ask a few questions about the kind of ‘play’ that is going on here.

For many, this this game is great fun. And it is free to download. But Niantic (the game’s creator, a spin-off company from Google), Google, Nintendo and others have invested cold hard cash in developing the game and trying to maintain the infrastructure that supports it. A closer look at how the app might provide some return on that investment tells us something important about the nature of ‘free play’ in our digitally-augmented urban playground.

How does Pokémon GO make money for its creator and investors? Of course, as with many free apps, there are ‘in-app purchases’ that will be attractive to some (if not all) players. Some analysts estimate earnings of over $1 million per day from such purchases. These in-app purchases are the most visible form of revenue from the game, but they are by no means the only or even the most lucrative revenue source.

At present, the real-world location of most important places for players like PokéStops and Gyms have been set by Niantic – based on spatial data acquired from another of their augmented reality games, Ingress. In that game, retailers and others can pay Niantic to have portals located in or near their premises. This has now occurred with Pokémon GO in Japan, where McDonalds has become the first company to do a deal with Niantic to sponsor Gym locations. Such deals are expected to occur elsewhere very soon.

But the revenue potential does not stop there. As the saying goes, “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Augmented reality games like Ingress and Pokémon GO have the potential open up a very lucrative new revenue stream based on the acquisition and sale of data – not just personal data, but aggregated spatial data about urban activity patterns.

There has already been some controversy about the terms of service for players, which give Niantic access to all manner of data on their phones – including email contacts and social media profiles. This data could potentially be sold to third parties with an interest in targeted advertising. Concerns about this arrangement resulted in a modification of those initial terms of service – but this modification has not satisfied the likes of Senator Al Franken in the United States or consumer advocates in Germany, both of whom have raised on-going concerns with Niantic.

But it is not only individually-identifiable personal data that interests Niantic. They are also interested in the spatial data that is generated by Pokémon GO players. As has been widely observed, playing the game rapidly drains phone batteries, because when the game is open your phone is constantly in touch with Niantic servers and providing detailed spatial information about your movements. The Privacy Policy notifies players that locational data will be collected during game play, and that “We may share aggregated information and non-identifying information with third parties for research and analysis, demographic profiling, and other similar purposes”. It goes on to note that “Information that we collect from our users is considered to be a business asset”.

This not only has the potential for surveillance of an individual gamer’s movements through the city (a potential which is of course inherent in smartphones anyway). Aggregated data about players’ movements through the city also has the potential to be incredibly lucrative.

Niantic is now harvesting geospatial data about millions of people’s routes from one place to another, about how far they are prepared to travel as part of game play, about the kinds of places they stop during game play, about the groups they travel with and the connections they make during game play, and much more besides.

The commercial potential of such information is huge. These markets for personal and geospatial data are closely guarded, and notoriously difficult to track by interested observers. While Niantic CEO John Hanke has remained tight-lipped in response to questions about the game’s revenue model, the collection and ‘sharing’ of such data is undoubtedly a core part of the business model of the app.

So, even gamers who never spend a cent on in-app purchases or promotions are effectively producing information that becomes a commodity owned by Niantic. The free distribution of Pokémon GO can be likened to the free distribution of a tool that lets us make stuff that then belongs to someone else.


Of course, this tool happens to be pretty fun to use. But this should not distract us completely from what’s at stake here. Work might be fun. But that doesn’t make it any less a form of labour. And as our everyday urban lives are increasingly commodified in this way, it’s time to start seeking answers to serious questions about how the spoils of our labour (or ‘playbour’) are collected and distributed.