Shaping Data Cities: the consequences of governmental institutions outsourcing urban planning processes to privatized data companies

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On: October 29, 2021
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Cityswipe – a public participation platform in urban planning

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, thus the debates that revolve around this topic are of primary importance for a sustainable future. The concept for smart city has developed trying to address such problems but many researchers have recognized the limits it encounters in doing so. As the concept of smart cities implies the relationship between technology and environment (cities), intermediated by users (citizens), the role of the users sometimes seem to be deemed as peripheral. In fact, as technologies improve significantly our living conditions within cities, the data produced through these innovations are rarely used to inform urban planning. Datification has raised many problems such as representation, privacy and political issues. This is due to the processes of how the data is gathered, processed and used, where the private sphere of platforms intersects with that of processes and dynamics originally built on a non-digital environment.

CitySwipe, is a platform created by Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. a non-profit organization that makes it easier to get feedback about the downtown as city planners work to update the Downtown Community Plan (DCP), a document that will guide the future of the city’s downtown for the next 20 years. It lets users swipe left or swipe right (dating apps like Tinder) to weigh in on their favorite and not-so-favorite things about Downtown Santa Monica. In the case of Cityswipe, it creates a channel which allows for public participation in urban planning to take place. Although public participation itself in urban planning is not new, as many governing apparatuses have involved city dwellers in taking city management decisions such as the Urban Renewal Program launched by the US in 1954, the processes through which it is done change the whole paradigm.

Outsourcing public participation in urban planning to private organizations in a framework similar to that of platforms where data is stored and processed through rigorous algorithms and schemes changes traditional decision making dynamics which affect these processes; which therefore must be investigated. Within the context of smart cities, the research aims to present the case study of CitySwipe in light of the following question: what are the consequences of outsourcing of urban planning to privatized data companies?


Figure 1: Picture of the CitySwipe application

The context of Smart cities

As technological development has consistently throughout the years been used as a tool to improve the condition of man within its environment, with electronic technology re-assembling these frameworks the concept of smart cities starts to arise: cities that gather data and use it to manage data, resources and services effectively to improve the operations across it.

The concept of smart city has developed around the 1980s and only later around the 2000s has developed a full meaning in urban planning and development literature. This concept has been developed along with concepts like digital city and intelligent city as it relies on the use of modern technology. The vision of the smart city contains a deep fusion of many different technical systems into a single integrated “ambient intelligence” (Ikonen et al. 2010). While there is no clear, broadly accepted definition of the smart city concept, when referring to the term it implies a series of technologies that, combined, contribute to its definition. In fact, a more general valid definition of smart cities is that all include the massive use of information and communication technology for creating more sustainable and efficient cities. As in the modern urban world this term has developed in parallel to the concept of internet of things,

where citizens are connected with physical devices (smartphones, connected cars, homes) and engage with the smart city ecosystems feeding data into it, city dwellers play a key role in producing and sharing useful data on how they live and use the city. In this equation, although citizens appear to be of central importance, they are instead not considered as relevant and researchers have defined smart city projects by criticizing them as technology-oriented, suggesting the need to shift to a people-oriented framework for achieving long term sustainability. (Adam Greenfield, 2021)

While most smart city projects tend to be technology oriented, Cityswipe is reshaping this very concept, suggesting a vision of smart cities where users are not only providing data passively in these environments, but are called to actively engage in providing their vision.

Platformization of Infrastructures

Platforms like ‘City Swipe’ could be situated within the theory about ‘platformization of infrastructures’ (Plantin et al., 2018). It suggests that digital technologies and neoliberal politics ‘have made possible lower cost, more dynamic, and more competitive alternatives to governmental or quasi-governmental monopoly infrastructures, in exchange for a transfer of wealth and responsibility to private enterprises” (306). Instead of the old ‘infrastructural companies’, that relied on provision and expansion, the new ‘ecosystem builders’ ‘leverage ‘programmability and interconnection to achieve control’ (307). Instead of examining platforms and infrastructures separately, these should be examined through a ‘theoretical bifocal’ (306), which combines both forms to ‘help us understand how these societies are being transformed(306).

Hence, platforms could be described as ‘data infrastructures’, according to the literature about ‘Platform Capitalism’ (Srnick, 2017), which states that the new economy is dominated by a class that does not own the means of production but rather has ‘ownership over information’ (38). In an information age where ‘the product of work becomes immaterial’ (Srnick, 38) in highly developed economies, the value of data has been steadily increasing.

According to Srnick (41), data as a resource is like oil for modern platform companies and thus comprises a great amount of power and responsibility. In a profit-driven society, virtual platforms exploit – what Srnick terms – ‘free labour’, in which users are seen as ‘unwaged

labourers’ who produce goods (data) that are then analysed and sold by companies to advertisers and other interested parties (53). Instead of data conservation by governmental institutions, private companies are drawn into the public field of Urban City Planning through platformization. Therefore, one should be aware of the effects that the governance of data has on the divide of power in modern society.

The shift towards a Schumpeterian Workfare Post-National Regime

In order to situate the creation of digital urban planning applications like CitySwap, it is necessary to zoom out in time and space and attempt to understand the global phenomenon that underlies it. Globalization has become a buzzword whose definition may vary across fields and disciplines. We suggest understanding it as a phenomenon of intensification and acceleration of economic, financial, social, political, and cultural activities mediated by greater interaction between a variety of actors (e.g., governments, companies, NGOs, individuals, etc.) on a global scale. This phenomenon has co-developed with information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The development of globalization through time have led international political economy scholars such as Bob Jessop to emphasize a shift from what he calls a “Keynesian Welfare National State” to a “Schumpeterian Workfare Post-National Regime” (or SWPR) (Jessop, 2002). According to his analysis, the economic policies of this new ‘regime’ now aim to encourage innovation, entrepreneurship, and competitiveness in an open economy. This comes with a new vocabulary that tends to promote the aforementioned values and a series of technologies of power that imposes them as the norm (e.g., graphs, rankings etc.). This corresponds to what he calls ‘Schumpeterian’. ‘Workfare’, however, refers to the idea that work has become central to the establishment of social policies, and production has become the condition to most social benefits. ‘Post-National’ refers to the assessment that the scale of power projections has gradually shifted from a national level to global (e.g., regional and international institutions, NGOs, global firms, etc.) and local levels (e.g., cities, local firms, etc.). Finally, ‘Regime’ stands for the emphasis put on private-public partnerships and governance mechanisms, that is, techniques that shift responsibility from the state as a sovereign authority to non-state actors.

As it has been highlighted before, the notion of ‘smart cities’ has not reached a consensus in the academic debate. Gil-Garcia et al. (2016) conducted a review of current literature on this topic. They distinguished two categories of definitions namely, some that highlight information technology and data and others that rather pay attention to sustainability, openness, innovation or resiliency. As a result, it appears rather clear that the notion of ‘smart cities’ is rooted in a neoliberal framework, aligned with the economic and social characteristics of the SWPR introduced by Jessop, that is, “to promote product, process, organizational, and market innovation” (Jessop, 1993).

Leitner and Sheppard (2002) affirm that a network discourse has emerged since the 1980s, following the development of globalization and neoliberalism. In 1997, the German newspaper Die Welt stated: « The city is dead, long live the net ». For the authors, networks are now considered to be the key to urban futures, through public-private partnerships and interurban cooperation (495).

Thus, the concept of the “Schumpeterian Workfare Post-National Regime” developed by Jessop provides a good basis for understanding the development of platforms like CitySwap, which aims to redefine processes of urbanization in a globalized world.

Methodology

To analyse our research object we will conduct a discourse analysis on the application of CitySwipe through the official blogpost of the topic (Santamonicanext 2016) and academic research papers (Mill, 1885; Naess, 2001; Plantin et al, 2018). Next, we will analyse the application of CitySwipe and its affordances through information gathered by the archive of the Waybackmachine (2001). Through how the questions are formulated, we will be able to analyse the app on its ‘affordances’, or ‘what a site offers the user, what it provides or furnishes’ (H. Rex Hartson, as stated in Stanfill 2015; 1062).

Because the application of Citywipe could only be accessed by citizens of Santa Monica, we were not granted first-hand access and thus will not be able to analyse the app in real-time. By using the ‘Wayback Machine’ in combination with our discourse analysis, we will be able to extract information about the way the app functions. Subsequently, we will be able to analyse our findings through the lens of the theories about ‘platformization of infrastructures’

(Plantin et all, 2018), ‘datafication of infrastructures’ (Poell et all 2019) and ‘platform capitalism’ (Srnick, 2017). Thus, this gives us a framework with which we could explore the consequences that an app like CitySwipe could have for the future of smart cities and our digitized environment.

Analysis

From a political perspective, the “platformization of infrastructures” (Plantin et al., 2018) in the case of CitySwipe, is a form of city management outsourcing. Traditionally, discussions around new city planning initiatives require the formation of special city councils with representatives of all parties potentially affected by the decisions: local residents, business owners, institutions, members of the public (Naess, 2001). Numerous council meetings are then organised by the city administration on physical locations, with each representative being given time to express their views on the subject and state a position “for” or “against”. This is often a very time-consuming bureaucratic process that is characterised by many arguments and delays. By outsourcing the public decision processing to CitySwipe, this democratic tradition is disrupted and replaced by a simple ‘digital voting’ system. However, this raises important concerns about the implications of the platform in the format of decision-making.

Through the use of the Wayback Machine and by analysing the official blogpost from Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (Santamonicanext, 2016), we were able to get an understanding of the core affordances of the platform. CitySwipe is a general voting tool where each individual vote has the same weight as everyone else, meaning that the final outcome is determined by the total number of individuals voting “for” or “against”. Although advertised in the official Santa Monica blogpost as an approach where different “voices are not ignored” (Santamonicanext, 2016), this feature can actually diminish the effects of public representation and has the potential to especially harm the interests of minorities or communities at risk of discrimination. Taking into account only the total number of votes and neglecting representation, credentials, and diversity leaves space for a dangerous weakness of simple voting systems, known as “tyranny of the majority” (Mill, 1885). A concept most widely studied in a US context, it denotes the phenomenon when the “majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of those of the minority

factions” (Mill, 1885). In the current political climate in the US, it is of vital importance to diminish this tendency as it can give agency to discriminatory ideologies, especially if the app is used to address timely political issues such as decisions on removing monuments of confederate generals or the systemic racism on the US housing market. The simple “majority rule voting system” (Mill, 1885) can be considered a major flaw of CitySwipe as it poses a risk to underrepresented communities who are already experiencing disadvantages in the Santa Monica area (Mizell, 2000).

Even though CitySwipe does not have a vote weighting system, users are asked to answer several profiling questions to be able to cast their vote. Those are as follow (obtained using the Wayback Machine):

“Are you a resident of Santa Monica? (Yes/No)” “What is your ZIP code? (text field)”
“Do you work Downtown? (Yes/No)”
“Do you live Downtown? (Yes/No)”

“Do you own a business Downtown? (Yes/No)


Figure 2: Questions as proposed by CitySwipe application

The platform also requires first and last names in addition to a contact email address or/and phone number to register the vote. It also generates specific follow-up profiling questions based on the response from the basic five questions, stated above. Examples of those are

“Would you like to live Downtown?”, that (when answered affirmatively) is followed by “Is cost what keeps this from being feasible?”. This is an example of detailed user profiling, integrated into a platform that is meant to just be a majority-based public voting tool, “designed to make it easier to get feedback about the downtown” (Santamonicanext, 2016).

The developers, private companies and political figures behind this app can access this profiling information in the back end, learning about individual and collective preferences, constructing patterns that can later be used for political campaigns or advertisers. This information differs from the one collected by social media platforms as city-planning decisions directly relate to local level politics and can serve for in-depth political profiling, based on actual voting actions rather than ambiguous opinions online. Outsourcing the collection and handling of such important political data to private companies creates concern over the governance of this data and whether private stakeholders can be trusted to preserve the right of secret ballot (part of the United States Constitution). The results of the voting process appear “anonymous” for the end user as voters can only see the final vote count and not the individual accounts who supported each option. However, that is not enough to prevent misuse of data as there seems to be no information on how data is handled in the back end. These processes are not described on the app as it does not have a Privacy Policy or Terms of Use section (in the form accessed through the Wayback Machine), neither are they stated in the official blogpost from Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (Santamonicanext, 2016). Therefore, the decision process is not transparent, leaving opportunities for misuse of sensitive data and algorithmic influence in decision-making. To fully understand the possible implications from the use of CitySwipe, API access to the app is needed to enable a data-driven methodology of analysis where data collection and management could be traced and evaluated.

Discussion

By outsourcing the public decision processing to CitySwipe, this democratic tradition is disrupted and replaced by a simple ‘digital voting’ system, neglecting representation, credentials, and diversity they diminish the effects of public participation. Although the medium within the context of smart cities seems to ease the processes of public participation by reducing them to digital environments, this affordance raises issues.

The ‘programmability and interconnection to achieve control’ and replace current systems (307) leveraged by the new ecosystem builders, as discussed by Plantin (2016) seems to encounter limits in replacing current systems as demonstrated in the analysis, leading to problems of misrepresentation and a lack of transparency regarding the data-use.

Through the ‘datafication of infrastructures’, a competitive advantage is created from which governments and politics could profit. Because datafication is a valuable asset (Srnick 2017; 39) in the ‘platform capitalist’ economy that we are embedded in, leaving this data untouched would be wasteful. Unless governments implement sufficient privacy standards for the users of these applications (which is not the case for CitySwipe), the privacy and political consequences surrounding these apps are in dispute.

In this essay, we have shown that Cityswap is a good illustration of the Schumpeterian Workfare Post-National Regime developed by Jessop (2002). Indeed, the app is presented as serving and being fuelled by ‘innovation’, it also illustrates that ‘work’ has become central to the social matters of the public sphere, integrating a number of non-sovereign, non-state actors from varying scales (i.e., global & local) to governance mechanisms.

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