Urban computing, Lifestyle management and Google Earth Urbanism

Working on his new book, Adam Greenfields asks:

what do you feel are the most significant contemporary developments in urban informatics? The most resonant projects, the most powerful interventions, the scariest precedents?

Nicolas Nova, one of our pannelists, has a very interesting overview of suggestions that I recommend reading.

I found Timo Arnall’s suggestion also interesting:

The use and interpretation of data as our everyday actions become increasingly digitized/networked (essentially comes down to data mining). … The idea of being called by investigators because I was identified as being near a scene of a crime is just one illustration of this new opt-in tracking. The pieces are in place, this is the potential of the information maps created from the tiny data chunks my Suica card pings out every day.

Like Arnall I think data mining will have important consequences. I suspect that urban computing will have an impact on the increasingly popular business of lifestyle or reputation analysis. Some can be empowering, while others could intrude on our freedoms.

All kinds of mobile media can be used to register and track behavior, varying from spatial use (where was I last week) to consumption patterns (what did I buy, what was I reading, listening to on my iPod etc). I will call this Google Earth Urbanism: the possibility to leave one’s tracks and markup actual space. These track records can be analyzed on aggregate, or used on an individual base. They can be used as the base for what one could call Long Tail Urbanism: reference to potential sites or persons of interest through ‘discovery algorithms’. It could also be used the other way around as filtering mechanisms: only people with a certain reputation are allowed to enter a certain site: the clubhouse, the VIP Room, the sports stadium, a shopping mall. Other possibilities abound. Read for instance this fascinating essay on City of Sound that states how publishing tracking and usage data may make us more reflexive about our own behaviour, and how a reputation system based on these inputs could also be used to discipline us into more eco-friendly ways of living.

So far I have found three interesting developments that could be linked up with Google Earth Urbanism. First is the phenomenon of geodemographics: the mapping of the city into lifestyle categories such as ‘dynamic individualists’ or ‘social seniors’ by commercial marketing companies like Mosaic. This data is used by companies, cultural institutions and private persons to retreive information on what kind of people live in a particular postal code area usually for purposes of marketing or identification. (If there are too many ‘social seniors’ living here I might not want to buy a house here). These lifestyle types are mostly based on consumer loyalty cards data, subscription databases, etc. but I suppose mobile tracking data could be added easily.

The second is (pseudo)governmental lifestyle profiling. Certain lifestyle patterns could lead governmental institutions to intervene in personal lives. The most obvious example nowadays is terrorism prevention. But there are also other examples. For instance in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, there is a so called ‘Rotterdam law’ that states that in certain problematic parts of the city, housing associations can set certain (lifestyle) requirements for people applying for housing (see here http://www.kei-centrum.nl/view.cfm?page_id=1899&item_type=vraag_en_antwoord&item_id=99 if you read Dutch). Currently to qualify for a house in certain parts of Rotterdam, an income of 120% of the national minimum wage is required. Could in the future other track records be included in strategies like this? Could the use of urban computing and lifestyle management lead to more governmental interventions in other domains of personal life – for instance in matters of health, social security, crime prevention etc. ?

The third one is a bottom-up proces: the use of tracking systems to perform or disaply identities in public or social networks. Leaving your traces on Google Earth or Facebook can be a way to show your identity to the world at large or a small community of intimi; a way to claim and name urban space to your own liking.

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.