Tag Archives: software

Working paper – Crafting code: Gender, coding and spatial hybridity in the events of Pyladies Dublin

A working paper by Sophia Maalsen and Sung-Yueh Perng on the subjectivity and spatiality of coding, prepared for Craft Economies: Cultural Economies of the Handmade, edited by Susan Luckman and Nicola Thomas, is available to view.

In the paper, we look at the integration of the digital and the resurgent interest in crafting artefacts. We do this by focusing on the work, relationships and spaces occupied by Pyladies Dublin – a coding group intended for women to learn and ‘craft’ code in the programming language of Python. Pyladies offers an interesting and fruitful case study as it intersects gender, relations of making and places of making, nested firmly within the digital world. The relations of making within the Pyladies group provides salient insight into the production of code, gender and space. Pyladies is predominantly attended by women with the focus to encourage women to become more active members and leaders of the Python community. By producing code in a friendly space, the group also actively works towards producing coding subjectivities and hybrid, mobile spatiality, seeking to produce coding and technology culture that is diverse and gender equitable. We base our ethnographic study to suggest ways in which Pyladies Dublin is consistently engaging in crafting code and crafting coding subjectivity and spatiality.

We thank the generosity of PyLadies Dublin for accommodating us and engaging in very productive conversation in the process.

Sophia and Sung-Yueh

Industrial Heritage: Software enabled preservation of dispersed and fragile knowledge in miniature.

Developments in software and digital technology have had wide ranging impacts on our leisure time, from movies on demand on our mobiles, internet on public transport and the ‘selfie’  saturated world of social media. Yet advancements in technology have also reached creative activities that are often considered far from mainstream and groups of individuals, who though they share a common interest, may pursue their leisure activity individually and in relative isolation.

One such social group is that of model railway enthusiasts. For these collectors, builders and hobbyists the developments in software have enabled fundamental changes to the way they explore and express their interests.  Geographically dispersed and relatively few in number (estimated in the low hundreds in Ireland) software has offered a means of augmenting the traditional physical locations of interaction, socialising and knowledge sharing. Software and connectivity have enabled a network of online interactions that has linked individuals more closely with the commercial suppliers and the specialist manufacturers of the models they consume, extending the reach of the community beyond the traditional clubs or shows. It has facilitated efficient access to, and the sharing of, previously inaccessible or unknown historic and practical knowledge regarding even the most obscure topics such as window size and seat positions.  Building upon more traditional sources of historic data such as printed media and journals, software has also enabled the capture of dispersed and divergent forms of data and facilitated their transformation, via computerised production methods, into ready-to-run models with unprecedented levels of physical detail and functionality. Continue reading

Job: Three year postdoc on the Programmable City project

We’re pleased to announce the advertisement of a three year postdoc position on the Programmable City project.   Full details of the project can be found on the Maynooth University HR page, but essentially the post will study algorithms and code used in smart city initiatives (broadly conceived) from a software studies perspective.  As such, the project will critically examine how software developers translate rules, procedures and policies into a complex architecture of interlinked algorithms that manage and govern how people traverse or interact with urban systems.  It will thus provide an in-depth analysis of how software and data are being produced to aid the regulation of city life in an age of software and ‘big data’. The primary methods will be a selection from those set out in the paper ‘Thinking critically about and researching algorithms’.

We are seeking applications from researchers with an interest in software studies, critical data studies, urban studies, and smart cities to work in an interdisciplinary team. Applicants will:

  • have a keen interest in understanding software from a social science perspective;
  • be a proficient programmer and able to comprehend other developer’s code;
  • have a good, broad range of qualitative data creation and analysis skills;
  • be interested in theory building;
  • have an aptitude to work well in an interdisciplinary team;
  • be prepared to undertake overseas fieldwork;
  • have a commitment to publishing and presenting their work;
  • have a willingness to communicate through new social media;
  • be prepared to archive their data for future re-use by others;
  • be prepared to help organise and attend workshops and conferences.

The closing data is 5th December.  See the full job description here for more details.

We would encourage any interested candidates to apply for the post and for readers of the blog to bring the post to the attention of those who you think might be interested, or circulate in your networks/social media.

New paper: From a Single Line of Code to an Entire City

A new paper by Rob Kitchin has been posted as open access on SSRN.  From a Single Line of Code to an Entire City: Reframing Thinking on Code and the City is The Programmable City Working Paper 4.

Cities are rapidly becoming composed of digitally-mediated components and infrastructures, their systems augmented and mediated by software, with widespread consequences for how they are managed, governed and experienced. This transformation has been accompanied by critical scholarship that has sought to understand the relationship between code and the city. Whilst this work has produced many useful insights, in this paper I argue that it also has a number of shortcomings. Principal amongst these is that the literatures concerning code and the city have remained quite divided. Studies that focus on code are often narrow in remit, fading out the city, and tend to fetishize and potentially decontextualises code at the expense of the wider socio-technical assemblage within which it is embedded. Studies that focus on the city tend to examine the effects of code, but rarely unpack the constitution and mechanics of the code producing those effects. To provide a more holistic account of the relationship between code and the city I forward two interlinked conceptual frameworks. The first places code within a wider socio-technical assemblage. The second conceives the city as being composed of millions of such assemblages. In so doing, the latter seeks to provide a means of productively building a conceptual and empirical understanding of programmable urbanism that scales from individual lines of code to the complexity of an entire urban system.

Keywords: code, city, software, programmable urbanism, software studies, smart city, urban studies, assemblages


Code and the City workshop videos: Session 2

Following up from last week’s videos, we are now into our second session of the Code and the City Workshop!

Session 2: Code and mobility

Moving applications: A multilayered approach to mobile computing
Jim Merricks White, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Mobile computing plays an increasingly important role in the way that space is experienced in the city. This has political consequences, both at the micro level of everyday production and consumption, and at the macro level of institutional and political economy. While geographers have explored the ontological role which might be played by hardware, software, data and mapping within this spatial paradigm, there remains little concerted effort to explore mobile computing as a technological system which incorporates all of these socio-technical assemblages. By drawing on adjacent disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and media and communication studies, this essay proposes a multilayered model for such a holistic inquiry: hardware—software—data(base)—GUI (graphical user interface).

By applying this model to a self-reflexive exploration of the taxi service Hailo and the mobility tracking application Moves, I attempt to demonstrate how it might be put to work as a heuristic tool. Following on from my desire to expose and explore the politics of mobile computing, the model is used to draw attention to the networks of power which make up these mobile computing services.

Digital urbanism in crises: A hopeful monster?
Monika Büscher, With Michael Liegl, Katrina Petersen, Mobilities.Lab, Lancaster University, UK

Intersecting mobilities of data, people and resources are an integral part of a new digital urbanism. Thrift speaks of Lifeworld.Inc, a new entertainment-security sector driven contexture where people’s everyday activities, movements, physiological data, thoughts, desires and fears are so richly documented in real time that commercial enterprise as well as urban services (transport, energy, security) can dynamically anticipate and shape them ‘just-in-time’ (2011). While this opens up novel opportunities for more efficiency, comfort, and sustainability in networked urban mobilities, it also provides new leverage for mobilizing disaster response. In a ‘century of disasters’ (eScience 2012), where urbanization has increased vulnerability and climate change contributes to increased frequency and severity of disasters, this opens up a perspicuous site for investigations of post-human practices, phenomenologies and ethics. Big data analytics and information sharing for risk prevention and disaster response can exacerbate the unprecedented surveillance contemporary societies practice (Harding 2014), Kafka-eske transformations of privacy and civil liberties (Solove 2004) and a splintering urbanism (Graham & Marvin 2001). At the heart of these transformations is a digital phenomenology of invisibility, immateriality and ‘intelligence’ that does not lend itself to human control. ‘Smart cities’ may depend on smart citizens (Greenfield 2013), but the technologies contemporary societies produce do not support human intelligence. We report from ‘inside the belly of the beast’ of innovation in mobilizing Lifeworld.Inc data for disaster response (Balka 2006). Drawing on experience from collaborative research and design projects (e.g. http://www.bridgeproject.eu/en), we discuss the relationship between lived cyborg practice, phenomenology and ethics in networked urban mobilities. Using a disaster perspective for a disclosive ethical investigation (Introna 2007) does disclose some potentially disastrous transformations, but it also highlights avenues for alternative, radically careful as well as carefully radical design (Latour 2009).

Abstract urbanism
Matthew Fuller and Graham Harwood, Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths

The urban riots of the USA in the late 1960s were some of the most powerful political events of that era. As well as drawing numerous responses from media, the civil rights movement, black nationalists, and groups such as the Situationist International, the uprising also triggered a range of research responses including some of the first computational models of cities. T.C. Schelling’s “Models of Segregation” attempted to provide a logical model for racial segregation and laid much of the groundwork for what later became agent-based modeling. Such work is expressed contemporarily for instance in the riot and insurgency modeling of J.M. Epstein and others. For the state, such events mark a schizophrenic relationship to the contingency of riot and how the algorithms play out in such a scenario. How can it govern events that both demonstrate and excite its power and also undermine it? This paper will propose a tracing of the genealogy of such models alongside a reading of other ways of using urban modeling in relation to the urban riots of that era and now. A parrallel reference point here will be the work of W. Bunge a quantitative geographer and spatial theorist. Bunge consistently argued that geometrical patterns and morphological laws express disadvantage and injustice under contemporary capitalism, and that identified patterns could be remedied by rational methods.

The history of computing, from G.W. Leibniz onwards, tangles with the problematic of developing rational approaches to complex, multi-dimensional problems with a high-degree of what J. Law describes as “messiness”. This paper will examine the ways in which rationality, or ratio, is positioned in relation to urban conflict as a means of discussing the relations between the city and software. The paper will develop a discussion of ratio in relation to questions of abstraction, reduction and empiricism. We are especially concerned to find a relationship between abstraction and the empirical that, by working with the materiality of computational systems recognises, and perhaps works with, the tendency to reduction(ism) but through which modes of abstraction may also work with the highly and complexly empirical.

Outsmarting the Smart City

In May 2014 Ubisoft released a new computer game called Watch Dogs. Having sold over 4 million copies in the first week of sales it is tipped to be the game of the year.  In the game, Chicago City is controlled by a central operating system (ctOS). The super computer gets a panoptic view of the city using data from cameras and sensor networks.  The information obtained is used to manage the city’s infrastructure and technology as well as to maintain a database of personal information about citizens and their activities.  In Watch Dogs, a disgruntled computer hacker finds a way to access and hack the ctOS, allowing him to hijack traffic lights, the power grid, bridges and toll gates, rupture water pipes, disable surveillance cameras and access personal information about fellow citizens. The motive for causing mayhem in the city is to find a gang who were involved in his sister’s death and ultimately take down the corrupt system that runs ctOS.  In this article, we take a look at some of the real dangers facing today’s cities from malicious hackers.

w_dog A Character Accesses City Infrastructure and Data in Watch Dogs

In terms of technology, Chicago, as presented in Watch Dogs is a smart city.  Data is fed into the central operating system and the infrastructure of the city adapts and responds accordingly. Although much of the game is fictional, Watch Dogs draws on existing technologies and echoes what is happening today.  For example, Rio de Janeiro has a large control centre which applies data analytics to social media, sensors and surveillance cameras in an attempt to predict and control events taking place in the city.  Its mission is to provide a safe environment for citizens. Other cities such as Santander and Singapore have invested in sensor networks to record a range of environmental and traffic conditions at locations across the cities.  Earlier this year, Intel and Dublin City Council announced that Dublin is also to get a sensor network for measuring city processes.  At present many of these projects are focusing on the technical challenge of configuring hardware, designing standards and collecting, storing and processing data from the city-wide sensor networks. Projects are using the data for a range of services to control the city such traffic management (guiding motorist to empty parking spaces), energy management (dimming street lights if no one is present) and water conservation (using sensors to determine when city parks need water).

The Internet of Things & Security

The roll out of such smart city technology is enabled through the Internet of Things (IoT) which is essentially a network of objects which communicate and transfer data without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. The IoT can range from a pace maker sending patient information to a physician, to a fridge informing its owner that the milk is low. In the smart city, sensors automatically relay data to a control centre where it is analysed and acted upon.

rio_CC The Control Centre in Rio de Janeiro

While Watch Dogs raises important moral and ethical issues concerning privacy and the development of a big brother society via smart city technologies, it also raises some interesting questions about the security and reliability of the technology. In Watch Dogs, the main character can control the city infrastructure using a smart phone due to a security weakness in the ctOS.  In reality, we have recently seen objects in the IoT being compromised due to weaknesses in the hardware security. Baby monitoring webcams which were accessed by hackers and demonstrations of how insulin pumps can be compromised are cases which have received media attention.  Major vulnerabilities of the IoT, were seen in late 2013 and early 2014 when an orchestrated cyber attack saw 100,000 ‘things’ connected to the Internet hacked and used to send malicious spam emails. The hacked ‘things’ included smart TVs, fridges and media centres. Basic security misconfigurations and failures to alter default passwords left devices open to attack.

Even mature internet technologies such as those used in ecommerce websites are vulnerable to hacking. In May this year e-bay’s web servers were hacked leading to the loss of user data.  Security flaws with the OpenSSL cryptography standard (used to transmit data securely on the Internet) came to light in April 2014 with the ‘Heartbleed’ bug. A vulnerability enabled hackers to access the short term memory of servers to capture information such as passwords or credit card details of users who recently interacted with the server.  All technologies which can send and receive data are vulnerable to attack and misuse unless strict security protocols are used and kept up-to-date. Unfortunately, as the examples here highlight, it seems that the solutions to security issues are only provided after a problem or a breech has been detected.  This is because it’s often an unknown bug in the code or poor coding practice which provides a way for hackers to access systems remotely.  There is a reluctance to invest in thorough testing of technologies for such weaknesses. Development companies seem prepared to risk cyber attacks rather than invest in the resources required to identify problem areas.

Hacking the Smart City

The fact that all systems connected to the Internet appear vulnerable to cyber attacks is very worrying when considered in the context of smart cities.  Unlike personal webcams, TVs and fridges, the technology of smart cities forms part of a complex and critical infrastructure which is used to calibrate and control a city.   While governments and city authorities are generally slow to publicise attacks on their technological infrastructure, the Israeli government has acknowledged that essential services that run off sensors, such as water, electricity and banking, have been the target of numerous hacking attacks. For example, in 2013, the traffic management system for a main artery in the port city of Haifa, was hacked, causing major traffic problems that lasted for several hours. Such malicious hijacking of technology is inconvenient for citizens, costs the city financially and could also have fatal consequences. Last year, it was demonstrated that it was relatively easy to hack the traffic light system in New York City. By sending false signals regarding the traffic flow at particular junctions, the algorithm used to control the traffic light sequence could be outsmarted and fooled into thinking that a particular junction was busy and therefore adjust the green time of traffic lights in a particular direction.

City technology is built on legacy systems which have been incrementally updated as technology has changed.  Security was often not considered in the original design and only added after. This makes such legacy systems more vulnerable for exploiting. For example, many of the traffic light coordination systems in cities date from the 1980s when the main security threat was physical interference.  Another problem with the city technology is the underlying algorithms which can be purely reactive to the data they receive. If false data is supplied then the algorithm may produce undesirable consequences. While the discussion here has focused on sensors embedded in the city, other sources of data, such as social media are open to the same abuse.  In March 2014, the twitter account of The Associated Press was hacked and a message reporting of an attack on President Barrack Obama was posted.  This led to $136 billion being wiped of the NY stock exchange within seconds.  This is an example of humans using bad data to make a bad decision.  If the human cognition process is unable to interpret bad data, what hope do pre-programmed computer algorithms have?

As cities continue to roll out technologies aimed at enhancing the lives of citizens, they are moving towards data driven forms of governance both for long term and short term actions.  Whatever type of sensor is collecting data, there is a danger that data can be biased, corrupt, played, contained errors or even be faked through hacking. It is therefore imperative for city officials to question the trustworthiness of data used in decision making.  From a technical point of view, the data can be made safe by calibrating the sensors regularly and validating their readings against other sensors.  From a security perspective, the hardware needs to be secured, maintained and updated to prevent malicious hacking of the device.  Recognising the threat which has been highlighted by Watch Dogs, the US Centre for Internet Security (CIS) issued a Cyber Alert regarding the game stating that ‘CIS believes it is likely that a small percentage of Watch Dog players will experiment with compromising computers and electronic systems outside of game play, and this activity will likely affect SLTT (State, Local, Tribal and Territorial) government systems and Department of Transportation (DOT) systems in particular.

In other domains, such as the motor industry there is a move to transfer functions from the human operator to algorithms. For example, automatic braking, parking assistance, distance based cruise control and pedestrian detection are becoming mainstream in-car technologies in a slow move towards vehicles which drive themselves. It is likely that managing the city will follow the same pattern and incrementally the city will ‘drive’ itself and could ultimately be completely controlled by data-driven algorithms which react to a network of sensors.  Although agencies such as the CIS give some advice to minimise the risk of Cyber Attacks on cities, it seems that hacking of the smart city infrastructure is inevitable. The reliance of cities on software and the risks associated with this strategy are well known (Dodge & Kitchin, 2004; Kitchin, 2014).  The problem is compounded by the disappearance of the analogue alternative to smart city technologies (Townsend, 2013).  This could lead to prolonged recovery from attacks and bugs due to the total reliance on technology to run cities. Cities therefore need to consider the security risks connected to deploying and using sensors to control a city and make decisions. It is also essential that control loops and contingency plans are in place to allow a city to function during a data outage just as contingency plans are made for handling the loss of other essential services such as power and water.


Dodge, M., & Kitchin, R. (2004). Flying through code/space: The real virtuality of air travel. Environment and Planning A, 36(2), 195–211.

Townsend, A. (2013). Smart cities: Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Kitchin R. (2014). The real-time city? Big data and smart urbanism. GeoJournal, 79(1), 1–14.