seeing the smart city on Twitter: colour and the affective territories of becoming smart

I have a new paper out! It’s co-authored with Alistair Willis and is Online First in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Here is its main image and abstract:

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This paper pays attention to the immense and febrile field of digital image files which picture the smart city as they circulate on the social media platform Twitter. The paper considers tweeted images as an affective field in which flow and colour are especially generative. This luminescent field is territorialised into different, emergent forms of becoming ‘smart’. The paper identifies these territorialisations in two ways: firstly, by using the data visualisation software ImagePlot to create a visualisation of 9030 tweeted images related to smart cities; and secondly, by responding to the affective pushes of the image files thus visualised. It identifies two colours and three ways of affectively becoming smart: participating in smart, learning about smart, and anticipating smart, which are enacted with different distributions of mostly orange and blue images. The paper thus argues that debates about the power relations embedded in the smart city should consider the particular affective enactment of being smart that happens via social media. More generally, the paper concludes that geographers must pay more attention to the diverse and productive vitalities of social media platforms in urban life, and that this will require experiment with methods that are responsive to specific digital qualities.

digital | visual | cultural

I’m very excited to announce a new project: Digital | Visual | Cultural.   D|V|C is a series of events which will explore how the extensive use of digital visualising technologies creates new ways of seeing the world.

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The first event will be on June 28, when Shannon Mattern will give a public lecture in Oxford. Shannon is the author of the brilliant Code and Clay, Data and Dirt as well as lots of great essays for Places Journal. ‘Fifty Eyes on a Scene’ will replay a single urban scene from the perspective of several sets of machinic and creaturely eyes. That lecture will be free to attend but you’ll need to book. Booking opens via the D|V|C website on 23 April. It will also be livestreamed.

I’m working on this with Sterling Mackinnon, and funding is coming from the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and St John’s College Oxford.

The website has more info at dvcultural.org, and you can follow D|V|C on Twitter @dvcultural and on Instagram at dvcultural. There’ll be a couple more events in 2019 so follow us to stay in touch.

So that’s the practicalities. What’s the logic? Continue reading

seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.

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Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

so what would a smart city designed for women be like? (and why that’s not the only question to ask)

I came across yet another smart city event yesterday with a line-up of speakers that was heavily male-dominated: 38 men and 12 women.  I tweeted, “what difference does it make that men outnumber women speakers at a #smartcity event by 2 to 1?  Sam Kinsley replied and pointed out, quite rightly, that this wasn’t actually as bad as some other events claiming to interpret the contemporary city (for a really shameful example, see Emily Jackson’s post here about a day conference organised by an ESRC-funded research project without a single female speaker – I can’t help thinking that someone high up in the ESRC should have a quiet word with the organisers).

Nonetheless, it’s not great, and it’s part of what seems to be a widespread marginalisation of women among the voices discussing and defining the ‘smart city’. (Ayona Datta joined in the twitter conversation, suggesting some reasons why it happens. ) One day I will find the time and energy to do a proper analysis of the gender balance in the images attached to the tweets of the main smart city players, for example, as well as a headcount of the speakers at the main smart city beanoes, just to confirm the point.  In the meanwhile, after I’d read that event’s line-up of speakers and done just a tiny bit of counting, here a few thoughts.

I’m assuming that the overwhelming dominance of men in the smart sector does have a major impact: on what tech is designed and how, on how potential markets are perceived, on what data is collected and what even counts as data, on how the smart city is imagined and therefore built.  (There’s so much relevant literature  on how digital tech design reinforces various kinds of social differences that I’m just going to point to a useful website that summarises some of it here.)  That impact will be both on what social identities are (often) visualised and assumed (both masculine and feminine) and also on what identies are then enacted as the data or device is used.  It would be great though to see some research really work at that question and interrogate my answer (and another ESRC-funded project, led by my colleague Prof Parvati Raghuram, promises to contribute towards that).

But maybe a more interesting question is: how to put women into the smart city?  Ok, so that’s already problematic.  ‘Women’ are a hugely diverse group of course, who do a gazillion different things.

However, as social scientists, we also know that there are patterns of activity within those gazillions.  Women still do more domestic labour than men.  Women still do more childcare than men.  Women still earn less than men.  Women are still objectified as sex objects in demeaning ways.  So a smart city for women might, say, be focussed a lot more on transport apps that don’t assume that the traveller is one adult, but might allow options for adult(s)+children+(contents of a shopping trolley).  It might entail crowd-sourced mapping that pays as much attention to the various forms of childcare (breakfast clubs, nurseries, kindergartens, childminders, after-school-clubs, youth clubs) as it does to drinking venues (as Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski have argued here).  The tech of a smart city would assume and enable a wide and diverse range of social actions by people in all sorts of combinations and conditions.

But of course we also want to challenge those patterns, and many other inequalities too.  I’m currently touring a talk about corporate visions of smart cities and I often get asked about “bottom-up, participatory, critical alternatives” (a lot of assumptions going on there that should also be unpacked); the example of lot of questioners come up with are the many apps that allow women to log how safe they feel in particular locations and to send messages for help really easily in an emergency.  On the one hand, great.  City spaces are certainly not always easy for women to inhabit, and some apps make that even worse (again, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski discuss this most excellently), so it’s fantastic that there are apps in response to that.  On the other hand, there’s something profoundly depressing – and disempowering – when the most frequent way women appear in smart cities is as the victims of violence.

So asking about putting ‘women’ into smart cities is maybe not the right question, or maybe not the only question to ask.  Not only does it erase the many differences among women, it also doesn’t always negotiate the line between ‘difference’ and ‘stereotype’ adroitly enough.

So maybe we also need a somewhat different agenda, which is more about moving between and against specific forms of difference via digital data and devices.  There are those all-too-familiar issues that ‘women’ face.  There are ways in which the design and use of digital devices can intensify those issues.  But other digital activity might have quite other effects.  In relation to those intensifications, for example, is there also something quite liberating, in some ways at least, to be mediated as a geolocated point in space, rather than as a visualised body encoded through gendered, classed, racialised and other ways of seeing?

Which suggests that, in a smart city, ‘women’ can be both: both embodied and a datapoint.  Among other things (a selfie, eg).  How then can ‘women’ be imagined, in a smart city?

This suggests that another approach to thinking about ‘women in a smart city’ would be to focus on how different social categories are constituted in the first place, when various things are done in cities with digital technologies.  That’s the sort of question asked by lots of sociotechnical scholars, of course.  But also by feminist scholars of data visualisations like Catherine D’Ignazio and the digital humanities like Johanna Drucker.  Their work focuses much more on the production of data in the first place and its problematic relation to social identities and the practices through which identities are enacted – data’s diversity, provisionality and unreliability, its uncertainty – and it focuses attention in particular on the process of turning data into something – a platform, an app – that enables certain social performances.  That is, it would be less focussed on ready-made categories of social difference and more on the processes of making data and making with data.

How would a mobility app or a city dashboard build that kind of data provisionality that into its interface?  I have no idea!  How would its users react?  Ditto!  But I would love to talk to interface designers about it.

Particularly because these are of course extremely sketchy and initial thoughts.  I hope to elaborate them in future posts on how smart cities are visualised in particular – but it would also be great to hear them raised too in some of those flashy smart city events.

exhibitions visualising digital data

There seem to be a few exhibitions around at the moment – as well as one that ran for a few weeks and closed at the end of November, in Riga, called Data Drift – that look at the intersection of digital data and digital visualisations of various kinds.  Maybe there’re always these sorts of exhibitions around and I just haven’t noticed them, but if there aren’t, it’s kind of interesting that I found four in the past month or so.

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One’s at Somerset House in London, focussing on data and called Big Bang Data, until the end of February.

Another is called Animated Wonderworlds at the Museum fur Gestaltung Schaudepot in Zurich.  It’s curated by Suzanne Buchan and runs til 10 January.  I was hoping to get to this one, but my plans were scuppered so I’ve had to make do with the exhibition catalogue and a YouTube video.  It’s focussed on animation rather than on digital data specifically but does include some data visualisations, and the catalogue has a great essay by Suzanne, which talks about just how pervasive digital animations are now.

And the third is at the Institute for Unstable Media (what a great name – though I guess all institutes are made of unstable media…) in Rotterdam.  Its title is Data in the 21st Century and it’s on until 14 February, exploring the frictions between ‘data’ and ‘reality’, according to its homepage.

As I haven’t actually been to any of these shows, this is more of a hand-wave than a proper blog post.  Interesting, though, that there’s so much work by artists, designers and digital humanists (Lev Manovich features in all but Digital Wonderlands, I think) using visualisations to interrogate data.  The claim that data – especially the big data sets generated by so much of the digital infrastructure of everyday life now – is understood more easily if it’s visualised is one that’s made very often.  I’m not so sure.  As others (like Johanna Drucker) have worried, once data is visualised, certain questions about it are prioritised over others.  A visualisation (as Suzanne Buchan argues about animations) invite affective responses, they let us “see the unseeable”, to quote Suzanne, and we can get carried away into their beautiful, glowing worlds.  That can be a wonderful thing.  But it also makes the robustness of the data, and the process of visualisation (both the technical process and the labour process) much harder to see, in fact.  Making something visible always seems to entail making something else much less visible.

a sneak preview of the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies

I’ve been working on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies on and off since January, squeezing it in the gaps between way too many other projects. As a result, it’s rather hard to have an overview of the beast (also because I seem to find it impossible to delete any more than a few sentences and a handful of references from each new edition). But I’m now facing the final run-through of the whole thing, when of course it will be lovingly burnished into a seamless whole, cough cough.

So I thought it might be interesting to note down a few of the things that I have learnt so far in preparing this new edition.  More may follow as I reread things I’ve forgotten that I’ve written.  (Yes, yes, I know, I need a holiday.)

1) one big change (for me at least) is that I’ve added a fourth site to the framework that structures the book. Editions one, two and three were based on the idea that there are three sites at which the meaning/affects of images are made: the site of the production of the image, the image itself, and its audiencing. The fourth edition adds the site – or, better, routes – of an image’s circulation to that list. This was so discussion could focus on how different methods might approach the online platforms that now host and distribute so many images, and through which so much of social life is mediated and performed.

2) adding the site of circulation to the book also gives a framework for introducing debates about ‘convergence culture’ and whether it deals with questions of power adequately or not. It seems to me that one way that ‘power’ in a largely digital visual culture can be thought through is by asking about the ‘power geometries’ that structure its circulations: what sorts of patterns are there in those circulations and how to they structure certain forms of agency while mitigating against others? The Guardian’s recent report on the languages of the Internet is a great example of mapping those circulations to show their situatedness and partiality.

3) the book also now has two chapters, not one, about methods that deal with large numbers of images. The first remains content analysis, which now also includes a discussion of Lev Manovich’s cultural analytics. The second is a chapter on digital  research methods, based on Richard Rogers’s definition in his book Digital Methods. Again, this seemed a necessary response to contemporary digital visual culture – how long can we go on looking at handfuls of images when everyday is mediated by thousands?

4) having said that, digital research methods don’t seem to work as tools for analysing the images carried by social networks – yet. It also seems very difficult to track the patterns of images’ digital circulations.

5) the whole data visualisation thing – so popular in newspapers and on coffee tables – doesn’t really seem to have hit the social sciences yet, either as an interesting thing to study or as a way of presenting data. (Though there are some exceptions to this, including lots of exciting mapping projects by geographers – yay GIS. I never ever thought I would be saying that, having been trained as an undergraduate to see GIS as the epitome of postivist, empiricist tech designed at the behest of the US military, but there you go.)

6) visual research methods people continue to swither between claiming photographs are useful because they carry loads of accurate information, and that they are useful because they evoke nameless affects beyond words. I can’t help thinking that there’s bit of a contradiction here, that somebody somewhere should really think through, particularly in the light of Johanna Drucker’s polemic against visually seductive data visualisations… on the other hand, as I argued in my Sociological Review essay, perhaps this indecision doesn’t really matter – images do all sorts of things in contemporary visual culture, including the small corner of it constituted by visual research methods, so I probably really shouldn’t expect consistency.

7) I am still not sure about keeping the chapter on psychoanalysis in the book. While many social researchers remain interested in psychoanalysis (see the recent collection Psychoanalytic Geographies, for example), it no longer has anywhere near the sway that it had in film studies scholarship twenty years ago, I think. So it seems to have lost some relevance as a method of analysis. On the other hand, it’s the only chapter in the book that systematically pursues feminist insights, and a version of Mulvey’s male gaze actually seems central to the recent resurgence in popular feminism. Plus, why follow fashion. Any thoughts, dear readers?

smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved

I spent a very interesting day a couple of weeks ago at the MK Future Cities conference, held at The Open University in Milton Keynes.  It looked to me like there were well over a hundred people there, mostly policymakers, businesses and various organisations with an interest in this thing called a ‘smart city’. Milton Keynes is a city with a lot of ‘smart’ stuff going on, and the day kicked off with a great talk from its council’s Director of Strategy on what’s happening and – more importantly – why and how it will matter to the city and its inhabitants.

Definitions of ‘smart cities’ proliferate (and indeed there is some muttering that the term is now past its sell-by date), but they’re generally understood to use data produced by digital technologies to do three things: enhance their sustainability by encouraging more efficient use of resources; increase their economic growth by innovating new products and markets; and become more open by enabling greater citizen participation in city governance.  I’m interested in them because, as I’ve posted about before, visualisations of different kinds are key to the smart city phenomenon. They proliferate as advertisements for selling smart city kit, they’re an important way of communicating ‘smart’ as an idea (and of course, these two things are often overlap), and visuals are also crucial to how smart cities are managed especially but not only in the form of the online data ‘dashboard’ (which are getting some attention now, with excellent recent discussions by Rob Kitchin and Shannon Mattern).

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Smart cities are also proliferating – over half of UK cities claim to be smart, apparently – and so it seems important to think carefully about what sort of urban life they are offering.  I think right now that’s an open question.  There’s a lot of big corporations involved in selling smart city control-and-command centres, but there’s also a fair bit of discussion about how smart tech can also be designed and used by ordinary folk, for all sorts of ends other than profit.  (There’s a nice essay in First Monday exploring those latter possibilities, for example, from the Mobile City peeps Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal.)

From what I could gather of the make-up of the speakers and audience at the FutureCity event, it was pretty representative of who is driving the development of smart cities in the UK: local councils, tech enterprises small medium and large, and a bunch of other kinds of organisations, including universities, the UK-government-funded Catapults and a range of various interest and/or campaigning groups.  There were very few designers or architects; very few third sector organisations; and, bar one behavioural psychologist, no social scientists on the panels.

As a social scientist, though, various things struck me about the day, particularly about how social differences were – or were not – addressed.  Various thoughts follow. Continue reading

ESRC research methods festival 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a keynote address at the Economic and Social Research Council’s Research Methods Festival, organised by the National Centre for Research Methods.  My keynote was filmed and will be online in a few weeks, I gather.

I heard some great sessions, though it wasn’t a proper festival (apart from the rain and the mud, as one of the organisers pointed out).  Not a lot of carnivalesque activity, sadly.  But a lot of interest, in several of the sessions, in making social science fun, and in the creation of social-scientific knowledge as play.  And intriguingly for me, a lot of that ‘play’ seemed to involve data visualisation.

Now, data visualisation is one of those research techniques that on the face of it should be included in the field of ‘visual research methods’ as it’s emerging through its handbooks and reviews and special issues.  Oddly, though, it rarely puts in an appearance.  But at the Methods Festival there were several papers about it, of different kinds, and several were, well, fun.  The most fun was probably generated by Andy Hudson-Smith from UCL’s Digital Urban lab, whose party trick was a landscape – a rocky island surrounded by sea – created from the distribution of geotagged tweets made in London.  Apart from showing you where people tweeted – or at least where people who had allowed their tweets to be geotagged tweeted from – its analytical use wasn’t particularly obvious.  But its attractiveness was very evident.

And a paper from Roger Burrows (forthcoming in Theory, Culture and Society in the autumn, apparently), suggested that such visual lusciousness was an important means by which sociology might become re-enchanted, and re-effective.  As more and more data becomes available, and more and more individuals and organisations start to play (around) with it, Burrows (with Mike Savage) has previously argued that sociology as an academic discipline is being increasingly outmanoeuvred by the data analysis of large corporations: hence the need to make it more effective.  At the Festival, he argued that making beautiful and fun images is an important means of achieving that end, and will therefore be an increasingly central part of social science knowledge-making.

So that’s definitely a new chapter for the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies, then.