Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mapping public transport accessibility in Sydney

Back in November last year, I blogged here about the first Sydney Alliance Transport Assembly, where we launched our campaign for improvements to public transport in Sydney.

It's not surprising that transport is one of the issues that the 52 partner organisations of the Sydney Alliance have chosen to work on together. Being able to get around is so fundamental to just about every aspect of urban life.

Our vision for an integrated and effective transport network focuses on addressing the key accessibility gaps with the following standards:
400  (everyone should be within 400 metres of public transport)
15 (that transport should come at least every fifteen minutes throughout the day)
1 (you should only need to pay once for any journey, no matter how many transfers you make)
S (you should feel safe)
C (it oughta be clean)
A (it oughta be accessible to all, regardless of who you are)
A (it should be affordable)

Since that Assembly, the Alliance's Transport Research Action Team has been very busy working on the 'S' in the formula, to take some first steps on the path to making this formula a reality. We've negotiated with councils to improve lighting in council car parks in several suburbs. We're also building a campaign on night-time staffing of key interchange train stations around the city.

Meanwhile, as part of the preparation for our work in 2013, Laurence Troy and I (both members of the National Tertiary Education Union) have been working together with members of the Sydney Alliance Transport Research Action Team to map the city on the '400' and '15' elements of the formula.

The map on the left shows which bits of Sydney have access to some form of public transport within 400 metres walk. The map on the right shows which bits of Sydney have access to some form of public transport within 400 metres that comes at least every 15 minutes during the day. As you can see, there's a lot less purple in that second map.

This weekend, an article based on the maps was published in the Sun Herald with some follow up stories on ABC Radio and Channel 7 news Today Amanda Tattersall (Sydney Alliance Coalition Director) has an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

You can also interact with the maps on the Herald website, which has produced an interactive version on a Google Map layer.

Big props to Laurence Troy, for his fantastic mapping skills. And also to all my fellow Transport Research Action Team members ... yay team!

Anyways, just in case anyone is interested in a little more detail about how and why the maps were made, here's a bit of an 'FAQ' ...


Friday, August 31, 2012

Outdoor Media Landscapes: Tokyo

Sensō-ji, Asakusa

A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Tokyo ... getting there has been an ambition of mine for a long time, and it was a real thrill to finally make it.

To mark the occasion, here's a little photo essay devoted to Tokyo's outdoor media landscape. Since this is a blog on cities and citizenship, I'm basically dressing up some holiday snaps with a few observations on some of the forms of public address that are jossling for space and attention in the city.


The density of text and image on the surfaces of the city is one of the many things that is striking about (parts of) this city ... not a very original observation, I know, but there you go! There's just so much commercial communication. But because I can't read Japanese, I experienced most of it as a brilliant jumble of colour and light (and movement and sound in some cases). The density is exciting, even if its purpose isn't. Could we imagine this kind of media infrastructure being re-purposed?

Shinjuku at dusk


This video above gives a bit of a sense of the soundscape that goes with the eye candy in Shibuya ... intense!

Train Carriage Advertising

While the advertising and shop signage seems to crowd out almost everything else, it's a city that also rewards you for paying attention to some of the nooks and crannies in between the bright lights and colours. Some of the urban infrastructure like street signs and drain covers were beautiful to look at too...

Street sign on the famous Ginza St, one of the main shopping strips of the city, which was off-limits to cars on this particular Saturday and lined with furniture and stalls...

This ornate drain cover was in Shimokitazawa....

There were also a few spaces set aside for what appeared to be community notices, and lots of maps ... an essential bit of media infrastructure given the address system in use in the city, even in these days of mobile internet and Google maps.

Here below are some demonstrators trying to make themselves seen and heard in Harajuku ... they had a large and captive audience, but the crowds seemed to have other things on their mind (ie shopping!!). Sadly I have no idea what they were demonstrating about ... nuclear power, the need to repent and get with God, who knows?! Mass protests must have to generate a lot of colour and noise to get any attention...

Of course, I was on the look out for any signs of graffiti and street art too. What I found seemed to be concentrated in Shibuya and around Shinjuku station. Stickers seemed to be particularly well-suited to the context here ... there was hardly any space left for anything larger, and not many times of the day/night when you might have a place to yourself long enough to hang around painting. The sticker artists typically made good use of space below eye level, which was less crowded because it is of less value to advertisers. In fact, paying attention to the graffiti kind of drew my eye away from all the advertising and other media, and gave me a different perspective on the landscape.

One of the ubiquitous vending machines being used as a platform for various unauthorised media, Shibuya

I love this one in so many ways ... one of a series of "I hate nuclear rain" stickers I saw by the same artist throughout the city.

Melbourne, represent! :-) It was a nice surprise to see some familiar names ... stickers from Reka, Meggs, and Phibs of  Everfresh crew on this pole, among others.
Shop shutter, Asakusa

Finally, there was a whole genre of plastic food art on display outside restaurants that warrants a mention...

Add caption

OK, that's probably enough! Back to our regular program with the next post...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Place-Based Income Management in Australia: from the outback to the 'burbs

"This is our Hurricane Katrina," declared Australian Prime Minister John Howard in launching the Northern Territory Emergency Response back in 2007. The NTER, or "the Intervention" as it has come to be known, was an extraordinary set of measures implemented by the Howard Government in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, (notionally) in response to a report into protection from child abuse in the Northern Territory called The Little Children Are Sacred.

Howard's analogy with Katrina was illuminating. I think he meant it to suggest that Australia ought to be shamed by the extent of Aboriginal disadvantage and abuse revealed in the report, just as the United States was shamed by the levels of entrenched racialised disadvantage revealed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the analogy goes further. As with Katrina, the situation in the Northern Territory did indeed demand a response. But the question was: what kind of response? And of course, the answer to that question is shaped by competing understandings of the nature of the problem to be solved.

As folks like Naomi Klein, Jamie Peck, and Kevin Fox Gotham have shown, the disaster that unfolded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's storm surge has been compounded by a surge of neoliberalisation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of hurricane-like proportions.

In Australia, something similar is happening through the Intervention.

At the time, the Howard Government made a distinction between ideology and what it called 'practical action' to address Aboriginal disadvantage. When Howard was asked on ABC TV's Lateline program whether the Intervention was a blow against self-determination, he replied:
Well, some may see it that way, but is that more important than fixing the problem? I mean, see this has been the problem with so many of the approaches in the past to Indigenous affairs, that doctrines and notions have been given greater prominence than outcomes and solutions.
So convinced of this was Howard that he was even prepared to ignore a significant part of the very first recommendations of the Little Children Are Sacred report which kicked off the whole affair. That recommendation stated:
That Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance by both the Australian and Northern Territory Governments, and both governments immediately establish a collaborative partnership, with a Memorandum of Understanding to specifically address the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
A range of NTER measures are worthy of critical scutiny ... but right now I want to focus on one of the key measures: income management.

Place-based Income Management

One of the most contentious elements of the Intervention has been the introduction of income management for social security recipients. 50% of the welfare payments in designated Northern Territory Communities were quarantined, so that they could only be spent on certain goods in certain shops.

Map of Aboriginal Land and Community Living Areas subject to the Intervention measures, from Yu Report 2008

The initial application of income management to welfare recipients in designated Aboriginal communities by the Howard Government required a suspension of the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. This is legally permissible for 'special measures' which are for the benefit of the targeted group. Of course, the notion that income management constituted a special measure which was for the benefit of Aboriginal people was vigorously contested.

The Labor Party supported the NTER legislation in Parliament in 2005, and continued to support the Intervention when elected in 2007, albeit in modified form. It commissioned a review of the measures associated with the Intervention in 2008. After extensive research and consultation, that review noted that while some welfare recipients identified some benefits of income management, the compulsory imposition of income management on all Aboriginal people in identified communities was widely opposed as both punitive and discriminatory. It recommended that income management become voluntary, unless triggered by specific circumstances (such as lack of school attendance or an identified risk of child abuse).

Labor rejected the recommendation that income management be voluntary, keeping it compulsory. In doing so, it continued the punitive nature of Howard's initial response. To address the concern that compulsory income management associated with the Intervention was discriminatory, Labor decided to impose income management on non-indigenous welfare recipients as well.


So, from July this year, under the new income management is being trialled in five suburban locations around the country: Bankstown (NSW), Logan and Rockhampton (Qld), Playford (SA), and Greater Shepparton (Vic). Compulsory income management has also been in operation in Perth and the Kimberley (WA) since 2008, specifically for those referred by child-protection authorities (as of 29 May this year, there were 158 people in Perth and 74 in the Kimberley on income management, as reported to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee).

In these new areas, there are three ways you can end up on income management: voluntarily; through referral by a child-support/protection agency; by being designated as 'vulnerable' by a Centrelink social worker.

A poster at Kmart notifying customers that the BasicsCard, used by those social security recipients on income management, can be used for certain purchases. These posters are now popping up in Sydney at various locations in Bankstown and beyond (this picture was taken at Ashfield Mall).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Anti-Graffiti, Part 1: Aesthetics

[This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about anti-graffiti in cities. Part 1 here looks at aesthetics, part 2 will dig into the anti-graffiti industry...]

So, graffiti is "ugly", a "blight on the urban landscape", it makes places "dirty", it is just like a "broken window", right? These are typical of the terms used to justify the on-going wars on graffiti.

I guess regular readers of this blog will know my response to this -- for reasons I've got into elsewhere, I think these aesthetic critiques of graffiti are highly problematic. But I've been thinking lately about the fact that anti-graffiti efforts are not only based on a flawed aesthetic critique, but they have their own aesthetics. Here, I want to break down some of the different kinds of urban landscape that we can associate with the on-going wars on graffiti.

As we'll see, what is most interesting about many of the anti-graffiti interventions that I'm about to discuss is how closely they actually resemble graffiti, if considered from a purely visual standpoint...

The new urban swatchwork

Countless walls in countless cities now look like examples of some particularly large-scale paint preparation site ... it's as though someone is agonising over just the right shade of brown or beige to paint the city, and is obsessively testing out different shades all over town.

Urban swatchwork, Enmore (Sydney)

I've actually come to love this swatchwork, in a strange way. As with ghost graffiti (see below), the patches each speak to the hollowness of 'victory' in the battle over some wall or other. The cleansing of graffiti does not produce any aesthetic integrity or purity of its own, just a visible indicator of the desperation of authorities to assert their authority. They're not actually too fussed what the wall looks like, so long as it doesn't have graffiti. And like the swatches of an aspiring domestic decorator, they suggest to me a wall that is not yet finished, still awaiting a decision on its status.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Graffiti and the Arab Spring

There was a great article in the Guardian last weekend, reporting on a talk given by Charles Tripp about the role of graffiti and other forms of political art in the recent revolutions in the Arab world:
Perhaps the most powerful form of art in the Middle East is graffiti. For Prof Tripp, its potency lies in its "reclamation of public space" and he argued that as well as creating a sense of solidarity, graffiti can powerfully represent the public's hold over territories: "The infrastructure is not enormous – as long as the spray can holds out". While the Israeli West Bank wall has long been a target for street artists, the open space of Tahrir Square has demanded further inventiveness. Children became billboards for scrawled messages, as did carefully arranged plastic cups. According to Tripp, this effected a psychological change – the square became a place of "everyday public, rather than an everyday police state".
The rest of the article is worth checking out: you can find it here. You can catch some of the talk on video here:

He notes in this talk that these forms of politicised public art are not new to the 'Arab Spring', and traces some of the longer histories of these kinds of interventions in different parts of the Arab world before 2011.

Meanwhile, here's some nice video of an art installation in Tunisian city La Goulette that accompanies the Guardian article:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Who stands for Sydney? On the construction of 'the city' as a subject...

In writing about the Founding Assembly of the Sydney Alliance a while back, I said that Alliance was an attempt to "create a new political subject in and of the city of Sydney". I'm really interested in the formation of groups who claim to stand for the interests of 'the city' ... and in the case of Sydney, the Sydney Alliance is not the only group currently claiming to stand for the interests of Sydney. In the last month, we have seen the launch of two separate campaigns in the name of Sydney. What do these claims to the city look like, and how should we judge them?

The Daily Telegraph's "People's Plan"

The Daily Telegraph, a daily newspaper in Sydney, has recently published a special series of articles on planning for Sydney under the banner of The People's Plan. The notion of 'people's plans' has an interesting history in Sydney, not least as a term that was used by green ban activists for their alternative plans in the 1970s. So, what does the Tele's People's Plan involve? First, the Tele surveyed their readers to identify a set of big issues they believed to be facing Sydney today. Having identified these issues with the input of their readers, the newspaper then assembled a 'cabinet' of experts in these various fields to write opinion pieces, which take the form of proposals for planning and policy. Editor Paul Whittaker asked these experts for "fresh thinking" and "practical and workable solutions".

In explaining the People's Plan concept, Whittaker referred back to the Sydney masterplan devised almost a century ago by engineer John Bradfield (most famous as designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). Bradfield's plan, says Whittaker, was bold and visionary, but never came to be implemented due to a combination of war, depression and the usual "political wrangling and bureaucratic inertia". Where are the visionaries today, he asks? Only a bold and coherent vision for the city will "give people of Sydney the truly global city that they deserve". (His short video launching the series can be found here). To date, the Tele has published articles by experts on a wide range of topics which include: health; safety; affordability; transport; youth; driving; tourism; education; environment; ageing; families; commerce and; western Sydney. These articles by experts are accompanied by another dozen or so articles written by people on the 'front lines' of some of these issues - such as commuters, carers, pensioners and homeless young people. Many of these contributions are fascinating reading, and I think the Tele's People's Plan has attempted to put a range of very important issues on the public agenda through this campaign.

Screen grab from the Daily Telegraph's "People's Plan" website

The Property Council of Australia's "Make My Sydney Work"

At around the same as the Tele launched its People's Plan, the Property Council of Australia launched a national campaign called Make My City Work.  It describes the campaign as a "call to action" designed to "direct attention to cities and engage the community on growth". Material has been produced for each major Australian city, including a Make My Sydney Work campaign devoted to "fixing Australia's global city". There's a set of materials under five campaign headings: housing; jobs; lifestyle; infrastructure, and; sustainability. At present, these materials are much briefer than those in the People's Plan. But Peter Verwer, CEO of the Property Council, launched the campaign with a lunchtime address to the National Press Club at which he spoke about the need for a 'New Deal' for cities in Australia.

Screen grab from the Property Council of Australia's Make My Sydney Work website

Alongside these two claims to stand for Sydney, and the Sydney Alliance, we also have the Committee for Sydney, Ten Thousand Friends of Greater Sydney, and most recently Occupy Sydney, to name a few.

Standing for the city: some critical questions...

How should we critically interrogate these different attempts to stand for the interests of the city of Sydney? We could ask several kinds of questions...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The city as a playground: children, young people and the right to the city

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address to help launch a seminar series on Children, Young People and the Built Environment called "Beyond Playgrounds and Skateparks", hosted by the NSW Commissioner for Children and Young People.

My talk was called "The city as a playground: children, young people, and the right to the city". The key message of the talk was that we need to move from thinking about the provision of playgrounds for kids in the city, to thinking about the whole city as their (and indeed everyone's!) playground. This is a matter of justice, of recognising children and young people's rights to the city as inhabitants with an equal stake in the urban environment.

You can watch the talk here. It's one of those fancy webcasts where you can watch the talk and see the powerpoints all at once. However, there are a few embarrassing minutes where you have to watch me stand quietly while I show a clip from an early episode of Sesame Street which you can't see. So, here's the clip I showed:

It's an awesome little segment from the very first episode in 1969, of a bunch of kids playing 'follow the leader' through backyards, drain pipes, and dormant building sites.* It's a great example of Herman Mattern's point, made a year earlier in 1968, that:
One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a 'playground' or 'park'. The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of 'playgrounds'.
That quote appears in Colin Ward's awesome 1978 book The Child in the City, which has informed a lot of my thinking on this particular topic. In the late 1970s, he was already observing the curtailing of children's independent access to the city, a trend which seems to have deepened according to more recent research by folks like Gill Valentine.

This curtailment is a matter of justice, an infringement on children's rights to the city. It reflects (and reinforces) the fact that children and young people are excluded from many of the rights and responsibilities of the citizen more generally.

It's obviously kinda contentious to suggest that children and young people are equals who ought to have full citizenship and rights to the city. We spend a week in my Cities and Citizenship course thinking about these issues, and it never fails to be one of the most hotly-debated issues in the Unit. The most common justification for treating children and young people as an exception to the universality of citizenship is that they don't yet have the capacity for autonomy and self-governance. As such, they don't have the capacity to take part in the polity as political beings. In any case, the argument goes, they will grow up to be adults one day, so their exclusion isn't permanent.

But if we take Lefebvre's concept of the right to the city based on inhabitance seriously, it provokes us to ask whether the exclusion of children is the result of problems with our dominant conception of citizenship, rather than a problem with children's capacities. Of course, children have different capacities than adults. But it's also true that children have different capacities to each other, just like adults. Age may be taken-for-granted as a proxy for capacity, but that doesn't make this rather arbitrary proxy adequate or just. The challenge is to think about ways in which everyone's different capacities and interests can be recognised in the ways we plan the urban environment.

So, in the talk I discussed some of the capacities of children and young people that I think could serve as the basis for a reconceptualisation of children and young people's place in the city, as a physical, social and political space. I talked about children and young people's capacities for play, appropriation and evaluation, and gave a few examples of each in action.

In the end, I think the question of how to recognise children and young people's rights to the city raises some much bigger questions about planning, urban politics and rights to the city more generally. In concluding The Child and the City, Colin Ward noted that:
It is ironical, since the whole burden of my argument is that we should give more responsibilities to our city children, that city governments see their adult citizens as feckless juveniles, whose own aspirations and initiatives are not susceptible of incorporation into the official reality.
This is a similar point to the one being made by those who argue that cities are increasingly 'post-political' -- an issue that I am (still!!) working up a post on after a little discussion with Clive Barnett over at Pop Theory a while back.

Anyways ... big thanks to Linda Corkery and Kate Bishop for the invite to talk, it was great fun!


* I love Sesame Street! For those who share the love, you might also like an article I wrote Wax Poetics about the music on the show in honour of its 40th Anniversary a couple of years ago.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The street finds its own uses for things": William Gibson, technology and the city

I've just been reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of non-fiction pieces by William Gibson that has been published recently by Putnam.

I do love me some William Gibson, and it was a real pleasure to come across this particular passage in a piece called "Rocket Radio" that was first published in 1989.
The Street finds its own uses for things - uses the manufacturers never imagined. The microcassette recorder, originally intended for on-the-jump executive dictation, becomes the revolutionary medium of magnitizdat, allowing the covert spread of suppressed political speeches in Poland and China. The beeper and the cellular telephone become tools in an increasingly competitive market in illicit drugs. Other technological artifacts unexpectedly become means of communication, either through opportunity or necessity. The aerosol can gives birth to the graffiti matrix. Soviet rockers press homemade flexi-disks out of used chest X rays.
The line "The street finds its own uses for things" is one of Gibson's most quoted phrases, and had first appeared in his book Burning Chrome. The idea infuses most of his work, and certainly informs the plotlines of his most recent trilogy of Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History. In that series of books, Gibson's various characters make all sorts of different and unintended uses of a whole variety of techno-gizmos that are all commonly available today -- mobile phones, laptop computers, RFID chips, iPods, GPS devices, and the like.

Gibson is a strong believer in the role of technology in shaping society, but as the essays in this book make very clear, his fiction is not crafted or intended as an exercise in techo-determinist futurology. For me, it's Gibson's insistence on the potentials of new technologies to be modified, hacked, twisted and contorted that is one of the things that makes his writing so thrilling. Indeed, my current research on location-aware mobile media and the city has been heavily inspired by his recent set of novels. I especially love the interaction in those books between state agencies (both overt and covert), crime networks, subcultures, artists, corporations and advertising agencies, each paying close attention to the others as they try to adapt their practices to new circumstances. I also love the persistence, combination and mutation of 'old' technologies in his stories. And Gibson's urban imagination is also really interesting. Places like Tokyo and Moscow are every bit as crucial to his vision as London and New York, which is certainly an inversion of the dominant urban imaginary of English-speaking urban studies.

As Gibson is the first to emphasise, the near-futures imagined in his various books have certainly been overtaken by unexpected events. In the first book of his current trilogy, one of the key plot-lines concerns the circulation of mysterious snippets of video via internet bulletin boards. As he points out in an essay in Distrust That Particular Flavor, he might have written this kinda differently if he'd anticipated something like YouTube. Likewise, in his his first novel Neuromancer, "there's something like the Internet, but called 'cyberspace', and a complete absence of cell phones"!

But these novels don't stand or fall by their predictions. They're still compelling reading for the insights they offer into the times in which they were written. As he puts it in one essay:
The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely ... more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.
Please don't mistake this for one of those 'after us, the deluge' moments on my part. I've always found those appalling, and most particularly when uttered by aging futurists, who of all people should know better. This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing. It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else's past, every present someone else's future. Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now.
The best science fiction has always known that, but is was a sort of cultural secret. When I began to write fiction, at the very end of the Seventies, I was fortunate to have been taught, as an undergraduate, that imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they're written. Orwell knew it, writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948, and I knew it writing Neuromancer, my first novel, which was published in 1984.
Indeed, the title of the this collection comes from a passage in an essay which riffs on the relationship between science fiction, history and the future. He expresses a distrust for that flavor of science fiction which is all about the capital-F future, and which in order to get there must literally destroy the present and all its messy possibilities.

Likewise, I'm very much hoping to avoid the utopian 'crystalline city on the hill' which characterises so much contemporary talk on the so-called 'smart city', as well steering clear of the dystopian 'wasteland' envisioned by critics of these new technologies who consider them only ever as agents of the military and/or capital. I'm more interested in what kind of stuff is happening. Of course, some of this stuff will no doubt be good or bad, and I certainly want to offer some judgements here. But I'm less interested in judging the technologies, and way more interested in critically exploring their uses as they become caught up in various habits and projects that are taking shape in cities.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Locational privacy: beyond privacy as property and secrecy?

In April last year, it was revealed that every time an iPhone user synchronises their device with a networked computer, Apple downloaded files which contain fairly detailed locational information about the movement of its user. 

Soon after that, it was revealed that TomTom GPS devices also send locational information about their user's movements back to the company which provides the navigational services.
Map of iPhone movements, produced by Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden with their iPhone Tracker application (discussed below)

Predictably, in both cases the corporations involved have denied any sinister intentions, and have tried to re-assure folks that the data from individuals is de-identified and used only to improve services for consumers of their products. Equally as predictably, such re-assurances have not satisfied critics, who argue that these corporations have breached the privacy of their customers by keeping locational information without their explicit consent.

This question is most often asked, and answered, through the concept of privacy. And if the extent of newspaper coverage and opinion on such episodes is anything to go by, the issue of locational privacy is beginning to generate some overdue scrutiny. While most readers of these articles are assumed to be aware that their activities in 'cyberspace' might leave behind digital shadows, the fact that their movements through the city are also leaving such shadows is presented as something new that has emerged as a result of the increasing diffusion of location-aware mobile media devices such as smartphones and navigation devices.

Media discussions of locational privacy are generally infused with a nagging sense that something is  kinda wrong with these privacy incursions ... but there's not a clear sense of what exactly that is.
For the most part, these emerging locational privacy issues are presented as a problem of 'informed consent'. The assumption seems to be that as long as users are aware that digital data about their movements is being collected and stored and have given their consent to this, then there is no problem.

From this perspective, the only problem with corporations like Apple and Tom Tom collecting and storing locational data about individuals is that those individuals were unlikely to be aware that it was happening, and so could not make an informed choice. By contrast, when people broadcast their location by 'checking-in' to places via locative media applications like Foursquare or Facebook Places, there is no problem because they are doing so knowingly -- they have made an informed choice.

[There are also concerns about the security of such data, even where there is informed consent. Last year's breach of security at Sony exemplifies this risk. And even where data is de-identified, there exists the potential for re-identification in many cases. But I'm gonna leave this important issue aside for now...]

The understanding of privacy that informs this presentation of the problems of location-awareness is interesting. Privacy is almost universally assumed in such stories to be something that is traded by individuals, in return for the benefits of owning and using devices such as smartphones and SatNavs. From this perspective, as long as choice is free and informed, what individuals choose to do with their privacy is entirely up to them. The argument goes something like this: no-one is being forced to buy an iPhone or a SatNav, or to sign up with Foursquare or Facebook Places etc. So, if they value their locational privacy, they should not use the gadget and/or service. Similarly, if they are worried about digital surveillance through CCTV cameras or credit cards and are not prepared to 'trade' a degree of locational privacy for a bit of security and/or convenience, they can choose not to go to places with surveillance or use credit facilities.

This way of articulating the privacy problem has an associated policy response -- to ensure that adequate consent and notification mechanisms are established for users of gadgets and applications and places that might track/store/broadcast their movements. Once such mechanisms are in place, the problem appears to be solved.

This classically liberal presentation of privacy as something to be valued and traded by an individual has at least two limitations. First, there's the important question of whether conventional consent mechanisms are actually adequate to their task in a complex digital world. At the Engaging Data Forum hosted by MIT's Senseable City Lab a couple of years ago, Solon Barocas and Helen Nissenbaum gave a great paper about some of the significant limitations of notice and consent mechanisms in the digital realm. While their paper is primarily concerned with Online Behavioural Advertising and the tracking and targeting of individuals as they roam the internet, I think many of the points they raise are pertinent to the emerging discussions of locational privacy in the city.

Second, there's the broader question about whether individual consent really is the key issue here. If I'm the kind of person who wants to maintain some locational privacy, it's easy enough for me to not buy an iPhone. I could probably even give up my beloved 7-year old Nokia mobile phone without too much inconvenience! But here in Sydney, and in many other cities, making the 'choice' not to have my movements digitally surveilled would also mean not using public transportation systems (hello CCTV). It would mean not driving my car on freeways (hello eTags and traffic cameras). It would mean not going into any shopping malls or most shopping streets (hello CCTV and EFTPOS). It would mean not going into my university library (hello again, CCTV).  In other words, the issue is not only whether my 'choice' is informed. Even if I'm informed, do I really have the option not to consent? When a 'choice' about locational privacy means that I can't access facilities and services that are actually a part of my everyday life and citizenship, then is it really a matter of individual 'choice'?

Our 'choices' about locational privacy, then, are also constrained by the wider context in which they are made. This raises important questions: what are the 'reasonable expectations of privacy' that pertain in different contexts, and how are such expectations established, upheld and modified? These questions draw attention to the public nature of privacy. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner put it, "There's nothing more public than privacy". Of course, they were talking about the ideological privacy of sex and sexuality, but hey, their point holds here too -- 'reasonable expectations of (locational) privacy' are normative, and inscribed in laws and other public institutions and arrangements.

Given this public dimension to locational privacy, the extent of 'reasonable expectations of privacy' ought to be open to public debate and deliberation. But our collective capacity to conduct such debates is hampered by at least two crucial factors. First, there's the question of whether enough of us understand the new technologies and practices which impinge on locational privacy. It might now be obvious to most people that their movements in (certain parts of) the city are surveilled by CCTV cameras. But how much do most people know about the kinds of locational data kept by retailers, banks, advertisers, mobile phone companies, public services, etc?

Second, attempts to initiate debates about threats to locational privacy are often shut down by the claim that "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear". Here, the 'public interest' is equated with security in the face of terror and other forms of risk, and that public interest is said to outweigh most privacy concerns.

Daniel Solove (a Prof of Law at George Washington University in the US) has recently tackled this logic in a book called Nothing to Hide: The False Trade Off Between Privacy and Security (you can read a shortish article excerpted from the book here). The crux of Solove's criticism of the 'nothing to hide' logic is that it reduces the value of privacy to individual secrecy from the state. To paraphrase him, the disclosure of 'bad things' to the state is just one of a range of outcomes that may ensue from the collection, storage and/or broadcast of our location and movements. And we ought to be debating threats to locational privacy with some of these other outcomes in mind.

What are some of these other outcomes of the reduction of locational privacy that we might try to debate? Well, interestingly, one of the other outcomes frequently discussed is the risk that is generated, rather than prevented, by exposure -- this is the fear that 'good' people who make their location public might be at risk of stalking, or worse forms of criminal behaviour. (The good folks who designed the website Please Rob Me sought to draw attention to the fact that many people are basically broadcasting both their home address and the times they are not home via location-aware mobile media applications, in a manner which could be quite handy for, say, burglars.)

The potential aggregation of individually-identifiable information is another concern raised by Solove that is pertinent in discussions of locational privacy. His point here is that while we may not be too troubled by any one of the different digital shadows we leave behind in the course of a daily lives (a face on a CCTV camera here, a credit card transaction there, a Foursquare check-in here, a tag on a Facebook image there, etc etc), once those traces are aggregated, they build up a much more detailed picture of our movements and activities. As such, the question of who has the capability and authority to aggregate these different bits of data becomes an important question. Should some state agencies like the police have that authority? Under what circumstances and with what controls? Should insurance companies? Should employers?

There are some further outcomes of locational data collection and storage that also warrant debate. In  cases like the Apple and Tom Tom ones that I mentioned at the start of this piece, the collection and aggregation of data about our movements through the city is commodified through its use in the design new devices and applications, and through its sale to third parties like advertisers. Here, our movements through the city are generating a kind of surplus value that is being captured for profit by private economic interests rather than any 'common good'.

In seeking to raise these broader questions, the big question here is whether 'privacy' is an adequate concept to capture the variety of concerns that might emerge from the rapid diffusion of location-aware technologies. This has been a matter of debate for folks who have been thinking about surveillance for a while -- Colin Bennett recently published an article 'In Defense of Privacy' in the journal Surveillance and Society, and there have been a number of responses in the journal (gathered together here).

I haven't quite worked through my own position on this yet. Having thought quite a bit about publicness and the city, I'm certainly now pretty interested to think about the urban dimensions of privacy. I wonder if in urban studies, we've been so concerned with critiquing various forms of 'privatisation' that we might have missed the simultaneous threats to other forms of privacy that we might value?

I'm fairly certain that I'm not down with the 'privacy is dead and we should celebrate it' crowd. IT pundit Bill Thompson gave a really interesting talk advocating this position ("The Death of Privacy and Why We Should Welcome It") at the Lift conference in 2009, the video of which is sadly no longer available -- but there's at least an abstract here and a longer summary here. His talk was deliberately provocative -- but it seems to me that to posit the notion that 'we' have all traded in out-dated expectations of individual privacy for the benefits of smart phones and social media seems to rely on the very Enlightenment ideal of possessive individualism that it claims to supplant. I'm caricaturing his position, but he basically seems to be suggesting that the adoption of these new technological wonders has been an informed and unconstrained choice by individuals who constitute a technological vanguard that gets the benefits of it all, and need to teach the rest of us how to learn to stop worrying and love the iPhone.

In trying to wrap my head around it all, I'm especially interested to think more about the particular nature of locational privacy. The very notion of 'locational privacy' challenges simplistic assumptions about the public/private distinction which hold them to be separate spheres and places, because it implies that we might have a 'reasonable expectation' of a degree of privacy concerning our movements and activites 'in public'. This issue is addressed to some extent an in interesting piece on Locational Privacy from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have iPhones, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden -- the researchers who initially revealed the tracking of iPhone users -- have developed an open source application called iPhone Tracker, which lets you map the information that your iPhone is recording about your movements.

And using this application, James Bridle has just published what looks to be a beautiful book of maps of his (iPhone's) movements, called Where the F**k Was I?. I love the essay that he's put up on his website about the book, which is very evocative of the invisible infrastructure supporting location-aware media devices that saturates the city.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sydney Alliance Transport Assembly

A couple of posts back, I offered up some reflections on the Founding Assembly of the Sydney Alliance, a coalition of unions, community organisations and faith groups working together to "advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable Sydney". A short couple of months after that event, I was involved in launching the Sydney Alliance's campaign on transport at the Transport Assembly in Penrith, one of the outer-western suburbs of Sydney.

The Transport Assembly was the culmination of six months of action-research by the Alliance's Transport Research Action Team. In May of this year, when the Alliance decided that Transport would be one of the three key issues on which it would work, the Research Action Team was formed. It's a loose, diverse group, comprised of people from across the member organisations of the Alliance who were prepared to commit to working on transport. There's been quite a bit of learning-as-we-go here. One of the first issues to confront the group was that it was difficult to find a time and place to meet that would work for everyone across the city -- especially given some of the very transport issues that the group is trying to address! To get around this, we ended up with two groups, one that has been meeting in the Central Business District and the other that has been meeting in Penrith.

Since May, Transport Team participants have been busy talking to people across the member organisations of the Alliance about their transport issues, as well as reading up on the latest research on transport and meeting with a range of transport experts based in Sydney and beyond. Personally, I've found this really interesting. I've never conducted research on transport before, so compared to some of the other participants in the group, I've had a lot of catching up to do. Those involved in the team include transport workers and advocates in community organisations like the Western Sydney Community Forum and the Cancer Council, folks from various unions and community groups who've had a long involvement in transport campaigns dating back as far as the anti-freeway green bans in the 1970s (and sometimes further!), bus drivers and railway staff who have intimate knowledge of how public transport works and how it might run better, and people like me who are new to transport but fired up to make a change, among many others.

Sydney Alliance Transport Assembly, Q Theatre, Penrith, November 2011

The event started with small groups of people making their way to Penrith on public transport from various parts of the city. These groups conducted some research on the trip, surveying commuters about their experiences of public transport and telling them about the Sydney Alliance. They also chaperoned some members of NSW Parliament who were attending the Assembly. On arrival at Penrith Station, there were bagpipes playing (seriously!!!), and a march to the Q Theatre in Penrith. After the surveys were handed in and some food was consumed, the formalities began...

One of the main purposes of the night was to launch and explain the Sydney Alliance's formula for public transport in Sydney:

400:15:1 SCA2.

This formula addresses the different dimensions of accessibility to public transport which have emerged as Alliance priorities through the initial phase of action research.

The 400 is for 400 metres -- meaning that everyone in Sydney should have some form of public transport within 400 metres of where they're at and where they want to go.

The 15 is for 15 minutes -- meaning that public transport services should come at least every fifteen minutes all day, across the entire network

The 1 is for 1 ticket -- meaning that if your trip requires you to change modes of transport, you should not need to buy separate tickets, as is currently the case. 1 ticket should buy you access to the network, not just a single line.

The S is for Safe. The C is for Clean. The first A is for Accessible. And the second A is for Affordable.

Adding all of this up, the formula addresses the different 'accessibility gaps' that characterise the existing public transport system (see Corinne Mulley and Rhonda Daniel's work on accessibility gaps in public transport). The Alliance formula also recognises that Sydney-siders' travel needs are complicated -- we don't simply travel from the suburbs to the city centre for work, although the system tends to be planned with that kind of trip in mind. Rather, in our day-to-day lives we travel to lots of places, for lots of different reasons, at all times of the day and night (only about 16% of trips in Sydney are commuting to work, which constitutes about 28% of the distance we travel -- a large chunk of our travel is much shorter trips for other purposes like shopping, recreation, and services like health and education. See the most recent stats on transport in Sydney here). As such, for public transport to facilitate universal access to a range of activities and services which are central to our lives, it has to provide a network which enables us to access the whole metropolitan area.

Here, our thinking broadly fits with some of the work done by folks like Gustav Nielsen, Jarrett Walker and Paul Mees on the so-called 'network effect' in public transport. As Paul Mees puts it, you want the public transport network to be similar to the road network. The road network is not planned to enable all possible car trips to be taken on a single road. Rather, the roads form a network which provides a kind of mesh that enable car drivers to get anywhere they want to go. The same should be true of the public transport network. But in Sydney, public transport tends to be planned and provided as a series of distinct routes feeding into the CBD rather than as an integrated network which enables trips across the entire city.

To illustrate the '400' and '15' parts of the formula, a group of us produced a series of maps of public transport accessibility and frequency in Sydney. First, we mapped every train station and bus routes across the Metropolitan Area, to come up with an approximate representation of which parts of the city had access to public transport within 400 metres. Then we calculated the average frequency of each bus and train route between 5am and midnight on an average weekday. (Lots of member organisations in the Alliance represent shift workers, so looking at frequencies across the whole day was vital to adequately address their transport needs.) The result was the maps below, which show the extent of public transport coverage at different average frequencies.
In this map, those who live within the yellow shaded areas have some form of public transport within 400m

In this map, those who live within the yellow shaded areas have some form of public transport within 400m that comes at least every 30 minutes during the day

In this map, those who live within the yellow shaded areas have some form of public transport within 400m that comes at least every 15 minutes during the day

As you can see, while Sydney is relatively well-covered by public transport routes, not many of those routes have adequate frequencies to provide decent public transport for people across the city.

There are no doubt those who would suggest that lower density residential suburbs in the north, south and west of the city can't sustain frequent, comprehensive public transport and that densification is the answer. But like Paul Mees, we're not convinced of this. As the Public Transport Users Association in Melbourne puts it
Any city with sufficient population density to cause traffic congestion has sufficient population to support a first-rate public transport alternative.

Of course, the point of the Alliance is not just to raise a series of issues and toss around ideas for solutions, it is to build power and take effective political action. To that end, at the conclusion of the Assembly participants were provided with maps of their region of Sydney, and reps from the Sydney Alliance regional groups were on hand outside the theatre to sign people up who were ready to start taking action to address the gaps in the network.

Reflecting back on the Assembly and the work of the Transport Research Action Team so far, I think we've got at least two big challenges as we continue to develop the campaign... (beyond public transport being, like, a big issue!!)

First, I've found it really interesting that the issues of safety and cleanliness have emerged as very significant issues both to members of the Alliance and to members of the public who we surveyed. When we first presented the idea of a formula for transport at the Founding Assembly in September, it was '400:15:1'. But when we went back to member organisations across the Alliance with this formula, many told us that it didn't effectively capture all of their major concerns. This shouldn't have surprised me, given it has also emerged from previous research on transport accessibility. But I do think it's going to be a real challenge for the Alliance to find ways to address issues like safety and cleanliness that don't resort to the typical punitive 'law-and-order' responses. This is going to be especially important given that one of the other issues on which the Alliance is working is social inclusion. Indeed, the harassment of young people by police and security guards in public spaces and on public transport has emerged as one of the key issues for the Social Inclusion Research Action Team. I'm really excited about the potential for the Alliance to come up with something progressive rather than exclusionary on this issue...

Second, finding ways to build power and take action on public transport presents a particular set of geographical challenges for the Alliance in Sydney. To build an effective campaign on public transport, it's essential that people can connect with the issue and take action 'locally', in their neighbourhoods and workplaces. And yet, we've got to ensure that local actions add up to more than the sum of their parts. After all, a big part of the problem with public transport in Sydney is the fact that local services are not effectively co-ordinated into a network that provides integrated and comprehensive access to the entire metropolitan area. Inevitably, confronting network-wide issues like route structures, ticketing and safety will push us all beyond our localities. For instance, a 'local' safety campaign to get train stations staffed at night would have budgetary implications, and change to local bus routes and timetables would mean changes to procurement contracts between the State Government and public and private bus operators. So, we absolutely need to go local and build genuine citizen participation in transport planning -- that's a crucial ingredient that's been missing from all the expert-driven plans for improving the system which are now sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust, never to be implemented. And yet, we also have to make sure that local action is itself co-ordinated across the city -- you could say our organising challenge is to build a campaign that is as integrated and comprehensive as the transport network we want to create...

I'll be presenting a paper reflecting on the Sydney Alliance transport research-action process at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers later this month in New York, at a session on 'Placing Justice and Struggle in Transport Studies'. It's going to be crazy cold I'm sure ... but I'm not complaining!! I just hope that the transport heads go easy on me...

Meanwhile, if you're in Sydney and you'd like to know more or get involved, further details about the on-going activities of the Transport Research Action Team can be found here.

[Note: the ideas above are the product of collective research-action by lots of people involved in the Transport Research Action Team, but it's my write-up, so blame me for any mistakes or misinterpretations!] 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

To upgrade or not to upgrade, or, can I research locative media without an iPhone?

I've recently been awarded an Australia Research Council award to do a project called The Politics of Location. (Yay!!) The project will be looking into the implications of new location-aware mobile media technologies for the governance of cities. I'm especially interested in how different applications of location-awareness across various fields (from art and advertising to protest and planning) are caught up in wider conflicts over the making of urban spaces. It seems to me that there's an emerging politics of location associated with these new technologies and their applications. As the project gets underway, there'll be lots more on this topic here into the future. But in the mean time, I have a decision to make...

Quite a few of my friends and workmates find it pretty funny that I've been entrusted with public money to research this particular topic. I don't have a Facebook account, I don't Tweet or check-in, and I'm still rocking a 2004-model mobile phone that is far from smart - no camera, no big screen, no music, and definitely no internet. It does have a torch light, though. (And hey, I do have a blog!)

My mobile phone...

Most of those same friends and workmates have gleefully assumed that to do this research I'll now have to 'give-in', buy a smart phone and load it up with a bevvy of apps in order to truly wrap my head around the possibilities of locative media and mobile internet.

I'm not sure. Do I?

Initially, I never made a principled decision not to sign up with MySpace (remember that??), Facebook, Twitter or other social media. I just wasn't particularly interested, and I already spend enough time on computers for work as it is. And as for my phone, the one I have sends texts and makes calls perfectly well, and it just kinda kept on working, so I had no need to replace it. I briefly considered replacing it last year when the battery finally gave up on me, but my Dad found me a replacement battery on eBay for $5.

As social media and new mobile phone/internet technologies have become more ubiquitous, my non-adoption of this stuff is increasingly interpreted as a deliberate and determined opposition to new technology. I'm frequently asked to justify why I haven't upgraded my old phone, or why I haven't got Facebook, etc. It seems to be assumed that if I haven't adopted all of these new technologies, I must have some kinda position against them.

If I'm faced with insistent questions along those lines, it's not too hard to offer a position to justify my (lack of) action. Sometimes I express concern about the intensification of work that seems to accompany mobile internet and email, or about the storage and/or profiling of digital data about me by corporations. Sometimes I wax lyrical about the importance of being lost every now and again. Sometimes I remind people that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. Etc.

Now, I happen to think some of the above concerns are quite legitimate (at least to a point ... right now I'm blogging at the same time as looking after kids on a wi-fi enabled laptop through a Google-owned blog interface...). But if I'm honest, my non-adoption of these new media technologies is not actually informed by such concerns. My non-adoption of these technologies up to now has not been the product of a principled stance, just the result of inertia combined with a murky sense that I have other priorities for my time and money.

As it turns out, that inertia has actually given me scope to make an informed choice. Now that I've got this grant, it feels as though the time has come to think through some principles... or at least some reasons ... for going one way or the other.

If I let myself be guided by what's going to be best for the research project, at first look I can see a few pros and cons for upgrading to a location-aware mobile media device...

  • Maybe those who think I can't understand this stuff unless I have my own experience with it have a point! Getting to know the ins and outs of being 'on the grid' will surely be helpful in telling me something about both the possibilities of location-aware mobile media technologies, and the different ways they are woven into the fabric of everyday urban life for those who have access to them...
  • Part of my motivation for doing this research in the first place is a sense of excitement about some of the possibilities of location-aware mobile media technologies for progressive urban planning and politics. If I want to get involved in application-design for this purpose, having had some experience using such devices will probably be helpful in this regard. Not to mention the fact that I'll have no credibility if I'm sitting in a team-meeting with some designers and pull out my current phone...! 

  • I'm not actually trying to research the individual experience of urban life for users of location-aware mobile media devices. I'm trying to understand the ways in which various applications of these technologies are being put to work by different actors involved in urban governance and politics. The are related, but different. As such, I'm not sure how important it really is that I have personal experience with this stuff. It doesn't seem essential in order for me to be able to understand and analyse someone else's account of what they are trying to do with it...
  • Even if I was trying to research the user experience, there's a risk that if I become a frequent user of these technologies, I'll universalise my own experience with location-aware mobile media in my research. I think this is a trap that some folks from the computer/design disciplines sometimes fall into when they write on this topic.
  • As a non-adopter of some of these media technologies, they remain productively 'strange' to me (at least to some degree), and this is not a bad position to be researching from. Indeed, as a non-adopter, I quite like the kinds of conversations I get into with people who are designers and/or users of these technologies, which are often very demonstrative as they fire up their devices and take me through a particular application step-by-step. When some folks express surprise that I can live without one, it's a great pretext for a conversation about how they live with one.

So, none of the above is particularly deep or original ... in some ways this is just a variant on the old 'insider/outsider' dilemma for researchers. If anyone has any pros or cons to add to the list, let me know. Meanwhile, time for me to hit some methods books for guidance...