Archive for the 'urbanism' Category

Predestination: Loca and mobile surveillance

September 23, 2006

Imagine that you are walking down the street when you hear a beep from your phone.  You see a message reading:

“You were in a flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park; are you in love?”

The thing is – you were in the flower shop an hour ago and then you did go to the park for half an hour!

How would you react to this message? How would it make you feel? (

Well, I’m not sure how I’d feel. “Creeped-out” comes to mind. But as soon as I found out that these strange stalker-like text-messages were part of a city-wide art project, I’d probably feel pretty cool and want to learn more.

Loca, “an artist-led interdisciplinary project on mobile media and surveillance,” uses a network of Bluetooth nodes scattered around the city to track the movements of anyone with a Bluetooth-enabled device. The tracking data is fed into a database, which is then parsed according to “urban semantics” to make guesses about what the tracked individual is up to. The system then sends a potentially relevant message to the subject, such as the “are you in love?” question above.

See also: John Krumm‘s talk at Ubicomp 2006, “Predestination: Inferring Destination from Partial Trajectories” (.pdf).

And you thought Sim City was fun…

September 14, 2006

Over the past few years, urban planners, architects and engineers have been exploring the use of game engines to visualize everything from individual structures to the evolution of entire cities. But with the current explosion in ubiquitous computing, such visualizations are moving away from pure simulation to embrace real-time tracking of urban components such as public transit, taxis, utlities and even individual citizens. At this year’s Venice Bienale, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab presented Real Time Rome, an incredible synthesis of these technologies that points to an urban future that will be defined by the aggregation and dynamic analysis of an ever-increasing supply of surveillance feeds:

In today’s world, wireless mobile communications devices are creating new dimensions of interconnectedness between people, places, and urban infrastructure. This ubiquitous connectivity within the urban population can be observed and interpreted in real-time, through aggregate records collected from communication networks. Real-time visualizations expose the dynamics of the contemporary city as urban systems coalesce: traces of information and communication networks, movement patterns of people and transportation systems, spatial and social usage of streets and neighborhoods. Observing the real-time city becomes a means to understanding the present and anticipating the future of urban environments. In the visualizations of Real Time Rome we synthesize data from various real-time networks to understand patterns of daily life in Rome. We interpolate the aggregate mobility of people according to their mobile phone usage and visualize it synchronously with the flux of public transit, pedestrians, and vehicular traffic. By overlaying mobility information on geographic and socio-economic references of Rome we unveil the relationships between fixed and fluid urban elements. These real-time maps help us understand how neighborhoods are used in the course of a day, how the distribution of buses and taxis correlates with densities of people, how goods and services are distributed in the city, or how different social groups, such as tourists and residents, inhabit the city. With the resulting visualizations users can interpret and react to the shifting urban environment. Real Time Rome respects individual privacy and only uses aggregate data already collected by communication service providers; also, it is hoped that the exhibit will stimulate dialogue on access and responsible use of such data. (Real Time Rome)

Mass Observation

September 12, 2006

Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article on the Mass Observation Movement, a fascinating mid-20th century hybrid of sociology, anthropology and flanerie, is well worth reading. Mass Observation sought to reveal poetic truths about life and culture by connecting the threads of individual and social history with the fabric of the everyday. The movement itself eventually became “history,” but I wonder if it really went away or just lay dormant until the web got up and running. After all, learning about our culture from “mass observations” like website traffic trackers or product recommendation systems is becoming just as much a part of the everyday as driving a car or telling a joke.

On January 30, 1937, a letter to the New Statesman and Nation announced that Darwin, Marx, and Freud had a successor—or, more accurately, successors. “Mass-Observation develops out of anthropology, psychology, and the sciences which study man,” the letter read, “but it plans to work with a mass of observers.” The movement already had fifty volunteers, and it aspired to have five thousand, ready to study such aspects of contemporary life as:

Behaviour of people at war memorials.
Shouts and gestures of motorists.
The aspidistra cult.
Anthropology of football pools.
Bathroom behaviour.
Beards, armpits, eyebrows.
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.
Funerals and undertakers.
Female taboos about eating.
The private lives of midwives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.” (New Yorker)

Via the incomparable didactique.

Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

September 9, 2006

A wide-ranging interview about urbanism, architecture and fungus with sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer courtesy BLDGBLOG:

BLDGBLOG: In City of Saints you describe fungi – specifically, lichen – as a kind of living architectural ornament. You write how “much of the ‘gold’ covering the buildings was actually a living organism similar to lichen that the gray caps had trained to create decorative patterns.” Elsewhere in the book, those lichen “covered the walls in intricate patterns, crossed through with a royal red fungus that formed star shapes.” What do these examples imply about the possibilities for entire living cities, or even a reef-like architecture made entirely from organisms? What about architectural infections, or diseases and infestations that would act to enhance a manmade space?

VanderMeer: Scientists have already created buildings that are self-cleaning using certain types of bacteria, I believe. So this is as much a “science fictional” idea as a fantastical one, that’s for sure. I’m all about extrapolating fungal technologies. It creates an extra frisson of satisfaction in the reader, for one thing.

Something I’m working toward in the next Ambergris novels is this idea of how architecture and the organic interact. In fact, in the new novel, Shriek, there’s a whole passage devoted to this. At one point, the narrator comes to realize that there’s an entirely other city under the skin of what she can see – because her brother has constructed these glasses that kind of allow you to see with a sense that human beings don’t actually have. And what she sees is that every single building is just coated with fungus, invisible to the naked eye, and with living things forming separate symbols and signs. It’s on every wall that she looks at. It’s like a fungal architecture imposed on top of the city. (BLDGBLOG)


This project’s for the birds!

September 6, 2006

I can’t decide if this is a utopian or dystopian use of skyscraper rooftops:

Australia-born engineer/artist Natalie Jeremijenko has recently completed ‘OOZ, Inc. […for the birds],’ a remotely-monitored social experiment that takes the technology and theories of contemporary urban planning and applies them to a habitat for New York’s native bird population. Jeremijenko studied avian traffic above Manhattan’s Postmasters gallery and then enlisted seven vanguard architecture firms to create high-density housing units that are customized for the birds and installed in a 1,000 square-foot roof garden. Beginning September 7, visitors downstairs in the gallery can monitor the birdhouses via a live video feed.