We are organising a special issues on data-driven cities. You can find more details below and we look forward to your proposals.
Tecnoscienza. Italian Journal of Science and Technology Studies
“DATA DRIVEN CITIES? DIGITAL URBANISM AND ITS PROXIES”
Claudio Coletta (Maynooth University)
Liam Heaphy (Maynooth University)
Sung-Yueh Perng (Maynooth University)
Laurie Waller (Technische Universität München)
Call for papers:
In the last few decades, data and software have become an integral part of urban life, producing a radical transformation of social relations in cities. Contemporary urban environments are characterised by dense arrangements of data, algorithms, mobile devices, and networked infrastructures. Multiple technologies (such as smart metering, sensing networks, GPS transponders, CCTV, induction loops, and mobile apps) are connected with numerous processes (such as institutional data management, data brokering, crowdsourcing, and workflow management), in order to provide sustainable, efficient, and integrated city governance and services. Accordingly, big data and algorithms have started to play a prominent role in informing decision-making and in performing the spatial, material, and temporal dimensions of cities.
Smart city initiatives undertaken globally are characterised by highlighting the purported benefits of partly automating management of public services, new forms of civic engagement enabled by digital infrastructures, and the potentials for innovating policy and fostering economic development.
Yet, contributions within STS, Critical Data Studies, Geography, Sociology, Media Studies and Anthropology have contested the neutral and apolitical nature of (big) data and the ahistorical, aspatial, homogenizing vision of cities in favour of an understanding that recognizes the situated multiplicity of actual digital urbanism. The politics of data, data analytics and visualizations perform within specific urban and code assemblages embodying specific versions of real-time and anticipatory governance. At the same time, these studies highlight the risks of dataveillance as well as the corporatisation of governance and technocratic solutionism which, especially coupled with austerity regimes, seem to reinforce inequalities while influencing people’s lives out of the public grasp. Within this context, vested interests interact in a multi-billion global market where corporations, companies and start-ups propose data-driven urban solutions, while public administrations increasingly delegate control over citizens’ data. Also, public institutions and private companies leverage the efforts of open data movements, engaged civic communities and citizen-minded initiatives to find new ways to create public and economic value from urban data.
The aim of this special issue is therefore to encourage critical and transdisciplinary debates on the epistemological and ontological implications of actual data-driven urbanism: its uncertain, fragile, contested, conflicting nature; the different forms of performing and making sense of the urban environment through data and algorithms; the different ways to approach the relationship between data, software and cities; the urban and code assemblages that are produced.
To what extent cities are understandable through data? How do software and space work in urban everyday life and urban management? How do data and policies actually shape each other? What forms of delegation, enrolment and appropriation take place?
We welcome theoretical and empirical contributions critically addressing the following (non-exhaustive-list-of) topics:
- urban big data, city dashboards;
- data analytics and data brokering;
- IoT based urban services;
- predictive analytics and anticipatory governance;
- civic hacking, open data movements;
- privacy, security and surveillance in data-driven cities;
- crowd, mobility and traffic management;
- sensors, monitoring, mapping and modelling for urban facilities;
- digitization of built environment.
Deadline for abstract submissions: June 30th, 2016
Deadline for full submissions: October 15th, 2016.
Submissions (in English with a maximum length of 8000 words, including notes and references) can be made via the Journal’s submission system at www.tecnoscienza.net and an electronic copy of the article should be sent to email@example.com. The papers will be subject to a blind peer refereed review process. The special issue is expected to be published in 2017.
You can write down equations that predict what people will do. That’s the huge change. So I have been running the big data conversation … It’s about the fact that you can now understand customers, employees, how we organise, in a quantitative, predictive way for the first time.
Predictive analytics is fervently discussed in the business world, if not fully taken up, and increasingly by public services, governments or medical practices to exploit the value hidden in the public archive or even in social media. In New York for example, there is a geek squad to Mayor’s office, seeking to uncover deep and detailed relationships between the people living there and the government, and at the same time realising “how insanely complicated this city is”. In there, an intriguing question remains as to the effectiveness of predictive analytics, the extent to which it can support and facilitate urban life and the consequences to the cities that are immersed in a deep sea of data, predictions and humans.
People like working in a system that is proactive rather than reactive. When we are expecting a patient load everyone knows what their jobs [are], and you are more efficient with your time.
The patients are happy too, because they receive and finish treatment quickly:
Can we find such success when predictive analytics is practised in various forms of urban governance? Moving the discussion back to US cities again and using policing as an example. Policing work is shifting from reactive to proactive in many cities, in experimental or implementation stages. PredPol is predictive policing software produced by a startup company and has caught considerable amount of attention from various police departments in the US and other parts of the world. Their success as a business, however, is partly to do with by their “energetic” marketing strategies, contractual obligations of referring the startup company to other law enforcement agencies, and so on.
Above all, claims of success shown by the company are difficult to sustain in closer examination. The subjects of the analytics that the software focuses are very specific: burglaries, robberies, vehicle thefts, thefts from vehicles and gun crimes. In other words, the crimes that have “plenty of data to chew on” for making predictions, and are of the opportunistic crimes which are easier to prevent by the presence of the patrolling police (more details here).
This further brings us to the issue of the “proven” and “continued” aspects of success. These are even more difficult and problematic aspects of policing work for the purpose of evaluating and “effectiveness” and “success” of predictive policing. To prove that an algorithm performs well, expectations for which an algorithm is built and tweaked have to be specified, not only for those who build the algorithm, but also for people who will be entangled in the experiments in intended and unintended ways. In this sense, transparency and objectivity related to predictive policing are important. Without acknowledging, considering and evaluating how both the crimes and everyday life, or both normality and abnormality, are transformed into algorithms and disclosing them for validation and consultation, a system of computational criminal justice can turn into, if not witchhunting, alchemy – let’s put two or more elements into a magical pot, stir them and see what happens! This is further complicated by knowing that there are already existing and inherent inequalities in crime data, such as reporting or sentencing, and the perceived neutrality of algorithms can well justify cognitive biases that are well documented in justice system, biases that could justify the rational that someone should be treated more harshly because the person is already on the black list, without reconsidering how the person gets onto such list in the first place. There is an even darker side of predictive policing when mundane social activities are constantly treated as crime data when using social network analysis to profile and incriminate groups and grouping of individuals. This is also a more dynamic and contested field of play considering that while crime prediction practitioners (coders, private companies, government agencies and so on) appropriate personal data and private social media messages for purposes they are not intended for, criminals (or activists for that matter) play with social media, if not yet prediction results obtained by the reverse engineering of algorithms, to plan coups, protests, attacks, etc.
For those who want to look further into how predictive policing is set up, proven, run and evaluated, there are ways of opening up the black box, at least partially, for critically reflecting upon what exactly it could achieve and how the “success” is managed both in computer simulation and in police practices. The Chief scientist of PredPol gave a lecturer where, as pointed out:
He discusses the mathematics/statistics behind the algorithm and, at one point, invites the audience not to take his word for it’s accuracy because he is employed by PredPol, but to take the equations discussed and plug in crime data (e.g. Chicago’s open source crime data) to see if the model has any accuracy.
The video of the lecturer is here
Furthermore, RAND provides a review of predictive policing methods and practices across many US cities. The report can be found here and analyses the advantages gained by various crime prediction methods as well as their limitations. Predictive policing as shown in the report is far from a crystal ball, and has various levels of complexity to run and implement, mathematically, computationally and organisationally. Predictions can range from crime mapping to predicting crime hotspots when given certain spatiotemporal characteristics of crimes (see a taxonomy in p. 19). As far as prediction are concerned, they are good as long as crimes in the future look similar to the ones in the past – their types, temporality and geographic prevalence, if the data is good, which is a big if!. Also, predictions are good when they are further contextualised. Compared with predicting crimes without any help (not even from the intelligence that agents in the field can gather), applying mathematics to help in a guessing game creates a significant advantage, but the differences among these methods are not as dramatic. Therefore, one of the crucial messages intended by reviewing and contextualising predictive methods is that:
It is important to bear in mind that the predictive methods discussed here do not predict where and when the next crime will be committed. Rather, they predict the relative level of risk that a crime will be associated with a particular time and place. The assumption is always that the past is prologue; predictions are made based on the analysis of past data. If the criminal adapts quickly to police interventions, then only data from the recent past will be useful to police departments. (p. 55)
Therefore, however automated, human and organisational efforts are still required in many areas in practice. Activities such as finding relevant data, preparing them for analysis, tweaking factors, variables and parameters, all require human efforts, collaboration as a team and transforming decisions into actions for reducing crimes at organisational levels. Similarly, human and organisational efforts are again needed when types and patterns of crimes are changing, targeted crimes shift, results are to be interpreted and integrated in relation to changing availabilities of resources.
Furthermore, the report reviews the issues of privacy, transparency, trust and civil liberties within existing legal and policy frameworks. However, it becomes apparent that predictions and predictive analytics need careful and mindful designs, responding to emerging ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) when the impacts of predictive policing occur at individual and organisational levels, affecting the day-to-day life of residents, communities and frontline officers. While it is important to maintain and revisit existing legal requirements and frameworks, it is also important to respond to emerging information and data practices, and notions of “obscurity by design” and “prodecural data due processes” are ways of rethinking and designing relationships between privacy, data, algorithms and predictions. Even the term transparency needs further reflections to make progress on issues concerning what it means under the context of predictive analytics and how it can be achieved by taking into account renewed theoretical, ethical, practical and legal considerations. Under this context, “transparent predictions” is proposed wherein the importance and potential unintended consequences are outlined with regards to rendering prediction processes interpretable to humans and driven by causations rather than correlations. Critical reflections on such a proposal are useful, for example this two part series – (1)(2), further contextualising transparency both in prediction precesses and case-specific situations.
Additionally, IBM has partnered with New York Fire Department and Lisbon Fire Brigade. The main goal is to use predictive analytics to make smart cities safer by using the predictions to better and more effectively allocate emergency response resources. Similarly, crowd behaviours have already been simulated for understanding and predicting how people would react in various crowd events in places such as major traffic and travel terminals, sports and concert venues, shopping malls and streets, busy traffic areas, etc. Simulation tools take into account data generated by sensors, as well as quantified embodied actions, such as walking speeds, body sizes or disabilities, and it is not difficult to imagine that more data and analysis could take advantage of social media data where sentiments and psychological aspects are expected to refine simulation results (a review of simulation tools).
To bring the discussion to a pause, data, algorithms and predictions are quickly turning not only cities but also many other places into testbeds, as long as there are sensors (human and nonhuman) and the Internet. Data will become available and different kinds of tests can then be run to verify ideas and hypotheses. As many articles have pointed out, data and algorithms are flawed, revealling and reinforcing unequal parts and aspects of cities and city lives. Tests and experiments, such as manipulating user emtions by Facebook in their experiments, can make cities vulnerable too, when they are run without regards to embodied and emotionally chared humans. Therefore, there is a great deal more to say about data, algorithms and experiments, because the production of data and experiments of making use of them are always an intervention rather than evaluation. We will be coming back to these topics in subsequent posts.