PICNIC: Life in Readable Cities

On: September 18, 2011
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About Caroline Goralczyk
I’m a student of the MA track in New Media and a journalist to be, currently living in Amsterdam and enjoying the city at its fullest. After studying as an exchange student at the UvA, I decided to come back and stay here for a little longer to pursue my Master’s degree. In Vienna I was working for a news magazine where I had the chance to gain first-hand experience on how important new media channels can be for professional journalists nowadays. Therefore, my main interest in New Media lies in its influence on journalism and political communication in regard to news making and publishing.


Using public transport, we leave digital traces when checking in and out with our OV chip cards. Once our Bonus Card at Albert Heijn gets scanned over the counter, we provide Albert with valuable information about what we like to buy and how often we do so. Even when getting our morning Cappuccino at Starbucks and using a discount coupon on our mobile phone, it’s all about moving data from one spot to another. In other words: we live in data-rich environments and our cities are gradually turning into ‘readable cities’. All that, based on the vast amounts of data which we ourselves perpetually produce.

For this year’s PICNIC festival, the European Journalism Centre invited leading experts from arts and academia to elaborate on the city as a data-rich space and a site of innovation. In the initial session “From Database Cities to Urban Stories” famed speakers such as Saskia Sassen, Beth Coleman, Marc Tuters and Martijn de Waal gathered to discuss how the early days of pervasive mobile computing make us dwell in database cities. In order to approach the idea of cities as digital spaces, the discussion revolved around the following: What role do human and non-human actors play in aggregating and distributing information? What urban stories can our vast sets of data tell about us and the cities we live in? The fact that we’re increasingly involved in producing huge amounts of data has radical implications on future urban planning and infrastructure design. How will we perceive of our cities in the coming future? From a perspective focussed on the behavioural implications that arise with the emergence of cities as databases, questions of surveillance and privacy are also essential. Who will be able to access all our data and how can we use it for our own benefits?

Where does your trash go? Trash Track, a project by MIT.

How do you design for a heads-up city?

Who doesn’t know the feeling of bumping into people on the street because of being distracted by texting, calling or checking e-mails on their mobile phone? In her talk on ‘The City as a Platform’, Beth Coleman (Comparative Media Studies, MIT) introduced her idea of bringing back the value of face-to-face into designing our cities. How can we make our cities better and more efficient for us? Her suggestion: we produce a considerable amount of data by putting virtual tags on locations and letting others know what we do and where by using Foursquare, Facebook or any other kind of new media platforms – instead of using this information commercially, why not make use of this data for ourselves and use it as a trajectory for common resource sharing? What about creating an API for the city which allows us citizens to organise socially and participate in designing our own living spaces?

Dwelling in the gaps

When expressing her thoughts on the city as a complex place of technology, Saskia Sassen (Columbia University) addressed the need to understand that there is a gap between a cold set of data and the actual knowledge it can provide us with. By claiming that “data itself don’t give you any story”, she addressed a central fact related to the emergence of a new kind of urban stories. Those – sometimes even mystic – stories have existed forever, but we are in a phase of inventing new urban stories. In that sense, Sassen explained that data may travel in many directions but for it to actually become a comprehensible story and knowledge that can be passed on, it needs participation and somebody who can elevate data to an actual story. An important factor involved in working with data is the power of knowledge systems in our society. Data sets can be innocent, but only until they get used in a certain way or as Sassen states “When information is digitized, interventions are possible. But these don’t have to be good. They can be good or bad.” In that sense, she addressed the importance of acknowledging the power of institutions as knowledge systems and how these can intervene in the interpretation and accessibility of our data.

The Urban as a Public Sphere

Marc Tuters (University of Amsterdam) introduced his idea of a “Pointless Vision for Amsterdam’s Future” by presenting various concepts of cities and showing the historical development of Amsterdam as a city of ‘total design’. Tuters particularly works with the notion of locative media which he researches at the University of Amsterdam.  Locative Media are tied to the individual and its networked mobile devices, such as a mobile phone which becomes location aware when connected to the Internet. Tuters presented locative media as a social game player – we use our apps and all kinds of social media everyday to accumulate data and move beyond geographical borders which make our cities places of ‘gameification’.

On the other hand, Martijn de Waal (University of Amsterdam) discussed the relationship between the urban and the public sphere in relation to Habermas’s conception from the 17th century. What has been lived up as ‘the public sphere’ in coffee houses back then and was celebrated in the early discourses of the bourgeoisie is nowadays resulting in a period of radical change in public production. What are the new cultural objects nowadays around which a public sphere can emerge? Is it particularly the role of ‘user generated content’ that influences how we produce information and how we participate? According to de Waal, we have access to a lot of data, but the challenge we are facing is how to participate in approaching and understanding these data and not only in how to visualize and simply show it.

How to make sense of cold data

How can a raw set of data even make any sense to us as citizens and how can indiviuals get mobilized to participate in projects that support environmental sustainability in their cities? The role of data-driven journalism is increasingly important to interpret accessible data and make it understandable for everyone. Not only that, but the biggest challenge which journalists are facing in passing on urban information besides making it ‘consumable’ for their audience is to make it interesting. Thus, the challenging task of data-driven journalism is to make a story out of a data stock and show the context to readers in an exciting way. Data can be gathered for specific reasons and it has the advantage of being transparent and rather free of subjective interpretations, but another issue that is difficult to deal with is trust: which data can you actually trust in as a journalist? Then, the journalist’s mission is to work with certain data and information that is relevant to citizens and civil engagement and not to authorities such as the government. In a final panel discussion, Nerea Calvillo (Design, University of Madrid), Eymund Diegel (Urban Planner, New York), Roman Gallo (Media Consultant, Czech Republic), Mirko Lorenz (Journalist, Cologne) and Mark Shepard (Architecture and Media Studies, State University of New York) discussed these uprising issues for journalists and came to the conclusion that it is particularly challenging to make interesting knowledge out of accessible data sets and inject a ‘human side’ to it in order to involve citizens in urban projects of sustainability.

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