Author Archives: Jim Merricks White

Data and the City workshop (day 2)

Reblogged from Po Ve Sham – Muki Haklay’s personal blog:

The second day of the Data and City Workshop (here are the notes from day 1) started with the session Data Models and the City.

Pouria Amirian started with Service Oriented Design and Polyglot Binding for Efficient Sharing and Analysing of Data in Cities. The starting point is that management of the city need data, and therefore technologies to handle data are necessary. In traditional pipeline, we start from sources, then using tools to move them to data warehouse, and then doing the analytics. The problems in the traditional approach is the size of data – the management of the data warehouse is very difficult, and need to deal with real-time data that need to answer very fast and finally new data types – from sensors, social media and cloud-born data that is happening outside the organisation. Therefore, it is imperative to stop moving data around but analyse them where they are. Big Data technologies aim to resolve these issues – e.g. from the development of Google distributed file system that led to Hadoop to similar technologies. Big Data relate to the technologies that are being used to manage and analyse it. The stack for managing big data include now over 40 projects to support different aspects of the governance, data management, analysis etc. Data Science is including many areas: statistics, machine learning, visualisation and so on – and no one expert can know all these areas (such expert exist as much as unicorns exist). There is interaction between data science researchers and domain experts and that is necessary for ensuring reasonable analysis. In the city context, these technologies can be used for different purposes – for example deciding on the allocation of bikes in the city using real-time information that include social media (Barcelona). We can think of data scientists as active actors, but there are also opportunities for citizen data scientists using tools and technologies to perform the analysis. Citizen data scientists need data and tools – such as visual analysis language (AzureML) that allow them to create models graphically and set a process in motion. Access to data is required to facilitate finding the data and accessing it – interoperability is important. Service oriented architecture (which use web services) is an enabling technology for this, and the current Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards require some further development and changes to make them relevant to this environment. Different services can provided to different users with different needs [comment: but that increase in maintenance and complexity]. No single stack provides all the needs.

Next Mike Batty talked about Data about Cities: Redefining Big, Recasting Small (his paper is available here) – exploring how Big Data was always there: locations can be seen are bundles of interactions – flows in systems. However, visualisation of flows is very difficult, and make it challenging to understand the results, and check them. The core issue is that in N locations there are N^2 interactions, and the exponential growth with the growth of N is a continuing challenge in understanding and managing cities. In 1964, Brian Berry suggested a system on location, attributes and time – but temporal dimension was suppressed for a long time. With Big Data, the temporal dimension is becoming very important. An example of how understanding data is difficult is demonstrated with understanding travel flows – the more regions are included, the bigger the interaction matrix, but it is then difficult to show and make sense of all these interactions. Even trying to create scatter plots is complex and not helping to reveal much.

The final talk was from Jo Walsh titled Putting Out Data Fires; life with the OpenStreetMap Data Working Group (DWG) Jo noted that she’s talking from a position of volunteer in OSM, and recall that 10 years ago she gave a talk about technological determinism but not completely a utopian picture about cities , in which OpenStreetMap (OSM) was considered as part of the picture. Now, in order to review the current state of OSM activities relevant for her talk, she asked in the OSM mailing list for examples. She also highlighted that OSM is big, but it’s not Big Data- it can still fit to one PostGres installation. There is no anonymity in the system – you can find quite a lot about people from their activity and that is built into the system. There are all sort of projects that demonstrate how OSM data is relevant to cities – such as OSM building to create 3D building from the database, or use OSM in 3D modelling data such as DTM. OSM provide support for editing in the browser or with offline editor (JOSM). Importantly it’s not only a map, but OSM is also a database (like the new OSi database) – as can be shawn by running searches on the database from web interface. There are unexpected projects, such as custom clothing from maps, or Dressmap. More serious surprises are projects like the humanitarian OSM team and the Missing Maps projects – there are issues with the quality of the data, but also in the fact that mapping is imposed on an area that is not mapped from the outside, and some elements of colonial thinking in it (see Gwilym Eddes critique) . The InaSAFE project is an example of disaster modeling with OSM. In Poland, they extend the model to mark details of road areas and other details. All these are demonstrating that OSM is getting close to the next level of using geographic information, and there are current experimentations with it. Projects such as UTC of Mappa Marcia is linking OSM to transport simulations. Another activity is the use of historical maps – townland.ie .
One of the roles that Jo play in OSM is part of the data working group, and she joined it following a discussion about diversity in OSM within the community. The DWG need some help, and their role is geodata thought police/Janitorial judicial service/social work arm of the volunteer fire force. DWG clean up messy imports, deal with vandalisms, but also deal with dispute resolutions. They are similar to volunteer fire service when something happens and you can see how the sys admins sparking into action to deal with an emerging issue. Example, someone from Ozbekistan saying that they found corruption with some new information, so you need to find out the changeset, asking people to annotate more, say what they are changing and why. OSM is self policing and self regulating – but different people have different ideas about what they are doing. For example, different groups see the view of what they want to do. There are also clashes between armchair mapping and surveying mappers – a discussion between someone who is doing things remotely, and the local person say that know the road and asking to change the editing of classification. DWG doesn’t have a legal basis, and some issues come up because of the global cases – so for example translated names that does not reflect local practices. There are tensions between commercial actors that do work on OSM compared to a normal volunteer mappers. OSM doesn’t have privileges over other users – so the DWG is recognised by the community and gathering authority through consensus.

The discussion that follows this session explored examples of OSM, there are conflicted areas such as Crimea nad other contested territories. Pouria explained that distributed computing in the current models, there are data nodes, and keeping the data static, but transferring the code instead of data. There is a growing bottleneck in network latency due to the amount of data. There are hierarchy of packaging system that you need to use in order to work with distributed web system, so tightening up code is an issue.
Rob – there are limited of Big Data such as hardware and software, as well as the analytics of information. The limits in which you can foster community when the size is very large and the organisation is managed by volunteers. Mike – the quality of big data is rather different in terms of its problem from traditional data, so while things are automated, making sense of it is difficult – e.g. tap in but without tap out in the Oyster data. The bigger the dataset, there might be bigger issues with it. The level of knowledge that we get is heterogeneity in time and transfer the focus to the routine. But evidence is important to policy making and making cases. Martijn – how to move the technical systems to allow the move to focal community practice? Mike – the transport modelling is based on promoting digital technology use by the funders, and it can be done for a specific place, and the question is who are the users? There is no clear view of who they are and there is wide variety, different users playing different roles – first, ‘policy analysts’ are the first users of models – they are domain experts who advise policy people. less thinking of informed citizens. How people react to big infrastructure projects – the articulations of the policy is different from what is coming out of the models. there are projects who got open and closed mandate. Jo – OSM got a tradition of mapping parties are bringing people together, and it need a critical mass already there – and how to bootstrap this process, such as how to support a single mapper in Houston, Texas. For cases of companies using the data while local people used historical information and created conflict in the way that people use them. There are cases that the tension is going very high but it does need negotiation. Rob – issues about data citizens and digital citizenship concepts. Jo – in terms of community governance, the OSM foundation is very hands off, and there isn’t detailed process for dealing with corporate employees who are mapping in their job. Evelyn – the conventions are matters of dispute and negotiation between participants. The conventions are being challenged all the time. One of the challenges of dealing with citizenship is to challenge the boundaries and protocols that go beyond the state. Retain the term to separate it from the subject.

The last session in the workshop focused on Data Issues: surveillance and crime

David Wood talked about Smart City, Surveillance City: human flourishing in a data-driven urban world. The consideration is of the smart cities as an archetype of the surveillance society. Especially trying to think because it’s part of Surveillance Society, so one way to deal with it is to consider resistance and abolishing it to allow human flourishing. His interest is in rights – beyond privacy. What is that we really want for human being in this data driven environment? We want all to flourish, and that mean starting from the most marginalised, at the bottom of the social order. The idea of flourishing is coming from Spinoza and also Luciano Floridi – his anti-enthropic information principle. Starting with the smart cities – business and government are dependent on large quant of data, and increase surveillance. Social Science ignore that these technology provide the ground for social life. The smart city concept include multiple visions, for example, a European vision that is about government first – how to make good government in cities, with technology as part of a wider whole. The US approach is about how can we use information management for complex urban systems? this rely on other technologies – pervasive computing, IoT and things that are weaved into the fabric of life. The third vision is Smart Security vision – technology used in order to control urban terrain, with use of military techniques to be used in cities (also used in war zones), for example biometrics systems for refugees in Afghanistan which is also for control and provision of services. The history going back to cybernetics and policing initiatives from the colonial era. The visions overlap – security is not overtly about it (apart from military actors). Smart Cities are inevitably surveillance cities – a collection of data for purposeful control of population. Specific concerns of researchers – is the targeting of people that fit a profile of a certain kind of people, aggregation of private data for profit on the expense of those that are involved. The critique of surveillance is the issue of sorting, unfair treatment of people etc. Beyond that – as discussed in the special issue on surveillance and empowerment– there are positive potentials. Many of these systems have a role for the common good. Need to think about the city within neoliberal capitalism, separate people in space along specific lines and areas, from borders to building. Trying to make the city into a tamed zone – but the danger parts of city life are also source for opportunities and creativity. The smart city fit well to this aspect – stopping the city from being disorderly. There is a paper from 1995 critique pervasive computing as surveillance and reduce the distance between us and things, the more the world become a surveillance device and stop us from acting on it politically. In many of the visions of the human in pervasive computing is actually marginalised. This is still the case. There are opportunities for social empowerment, say to allow elderly to move to areas that they stop exploring, or use it to overcome disability. Participation, however, is flawed – who can participate in what, where and how? additional questions are that participation in highly technical people is limited to a very small group, participation can also become instrumental – ‘sensors on legs’. The smart city could enable to discover the beach under the pavement (a concept from the situationists) – and some are being hardened. The problem is corporate ‘wall garden’ systems and we need to remember that we might need to bring them down.

Next Francisco Klauser talked about Michel Foucault and the smart city: power dynamics inherent in contemporary governing through code. Interested in power dynamics of governing through data. Taking from Foucault the concept of understanding how we can explain power put into actions. Also thinking about different modes of power: Referentiality – how security relate to governing? Normativity – looking at what is the norm and where it is came from? Spatiality – how discipline and security is spread across space. Discipline is how to impose model of behaviour on others (panopticon). Security work in another way – it is free things up within the limits. So the two modes work together. Power start from the study of given reality. Data is about the management of flows. The specific relevance to data in cities is done by looking at refrigerated warehouses that are used within the framework of smart grid to balance energy consumption – storing and releasing energy that is preserved in them. The whole warehouse has been objectified and quantified – down to specific product and opening and closing doors. He see the core of the control through connections, processes and flows. Think of liquid surveillance – beyond the human.

Finally, Teresa Scassa explored Crime Data and Analytics: Accounting for Crime in the City. Crime data is used in planning, allocation of resources, public policy making – broad range of uses. Part of oppositional social justice narratives, and it is an artefact of the interaction of citizen and state, as understood and recorded by the agents of the state operating within particular institutional cultures. Looking at crime statistics that are provided to the public as open data – derived from police files under some guidelines, and also emergency call data which made from calls to the policy to provide crime maps. The data that use in visualisation about the city is not the same data that is used for official crime statistics. There are limits to the data – institutional factors: it measure the performance of the police, not crime. It’s how police are doing their job – and there are lots of acts of ‘massaging’ the data by those that are observed. The stats are manipulated to produce the results that are requested. The police are the sensors, and there is unreporting of crime according to the opinion of police person – e.g. sexual assault, and also the privatisation of policing who don’t report. Crime maps are offered by private sector companies that sell analytics, and then provide public facing option – the narrative is controlled – what will be shared and how. Crime maps are declared as ‘public awareness or civic engagement’ but not transparency or accountability. Focus on property offence and not white collar one. There are ‘alternalytics’ – using other sources, such as victimisation survey, legislation, data from hospital, sexual assault crisis centres, and crowdsourcing. Example of the reporting bottom up is harrassmap to report cases that started in Egypt. Legal questions are how relationship between private and public sector data affect ownership, access and control. Another one is how the state structure affect data comparability and interoperability. Also there is a question about how does law prescribe and limit what data points can be collected or reported.

The session closed with a discussion that explored some examples of solutionism like crowdsourcing that ask the most vulnerable people in society to contribute data about assault against them which is highly problematic. The crime data is popular in portals such as the London one, but it is mixed into multiple concerns such as property price. David – The utopian concept of platform independence, and assuming that platforms are without values is inherently wrong.

The workshop closed with a discussion of the main ideas that emerged from it and lessons. How are all these things playing out. Some questions that started emerging are questions on how crowdsourcing can be bottom up (OSM) and sometime top-down, with issues about data cultures in Citizen Science, for example. There are questions on to what degree the political aspects of citizenship and subjectivity are playing out in citizen science. Re-engineering information in new ways, and rural/urban divide are issues that bodies such as Ordnance Survey need to face, there are conflicts within data that is an interesting piece, and to ensure that the data is useful. The sensors on legs is a concept that can be relevant to bodies such as Ordnance Survey. The concept of stack – it also relevant to where we position our research and what different researchers do: starting from the technical aspects to how people engage, and the workshop gave a slicing through these layers. An issue that is left outside is the business aspect – who will use it, how it is paid. We need the public libraries with the information, but also the skills to do things with these data. The data economy is important and some data will only produced by the state, but there are issues with the data practices within the data agencies within the state – and it is not ready to get out. If data is garbage, you can’t do much with it – there is no economy that can be based on it. An open questions is when data produce software? when does it fail? Can we produce data with and without connection to software? There is also the physical presence and the environmental impacts. Citizen engagement about infrastructure is lacking and how we tease out how things open to people to get involved. There was also need to be nuanced about the city the same way that we focused on data. Try to think about the way the city is framed: as a site to activities, subjectivity, practices; city as a source for data – mined; city as political jurisdiction; city as aspiration – the city of tomorrow; city as concentration of flows; city as a social-cultural system; city as a scale for analysis/ laboratory. The title and data and the city – is it for a city? Back to environmental issues – data is not ephemeral and does have tangible impacts (e.g. energy use in blockchain, inefficient algorithms, electronic WEEE that is left in the city). There are also issues of access and control – huge volumes of data. Issues are covered in papers such as device democracy. Wider issues that are making link between technology and wider systems of thought and considerations.

Data and the City workshop (day 1)

Reblogged from Po Ve Sham – Muki Haklay’s personal blog:

The workshop, which is part of the Programmable City project (which is funded by the European Research Council), is held in Maynooth on today and tomorrow. The papers and discussions touched multiple current aspects of technology and the city: Big Data, Open Data, crowdsourcing, and critical studies of data and software. The notes below are focusing on aspects that are relevant to Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), Citizen Science and participatory sensing – aspects of Big Data/Open data are noted more briefly.

Rob Kitchin opened with a talk to frame the workshop, highlighting the history of city data (see his paper on which the talk is based). We are witnessing a transformation from data-informed cities to data-driven cities. Within these data streams we can include Big Data, official data, sensors, drones and other sources. The sources also include volunteered information such as social media, mapping, and citizen science. Cities are becoming instrumented and networked and the data is assembled through urban informatics (focusing on interaction and visualisation) and urban science (which focus on modelling and analysis( . There is a lot of critique – with relations to data, there are questions about the politics of urban data, corporatisation of governance, the use of buggy, brittle and hackable urban systems, and social and ethical aspects. Examples to these issues include politics: accepting that data is not value free or objective and influenced by organisations with specific interest and goals. Another issue is the corporatisation of data, with questions about data ownership and data control. Further issues of data security and data integrity when systems are buggy and brittle – there have been cases of hacking into a city systems already. Social, Political, and ethical aspects include data protection and privacy, dataveillance/surveillance, social sorting through algorithms, control creep, dynamic pricing and anticipatory governance (expecting someone to be a criminal). There are also technical questions: coverage, integration between systems, data quality and governance (and the communication of information about quality), and skills and organisational capabilities to deal with the data.
The workshop is to think critically about the data, and asking questions on how this data is constructed and run.

The talk by Jim Thatcher & Craig Dalton – explored provenance models of data. A core question is how to demonstrate that data is what is saying it is and where it came from. In particular, they consider how provenance applies to urban data. There is an epistemological leap from an individual (person) to a data point(s) – per person there can be up to 1500 data attribute per person in corporate database. City governance require more provenance in information than commercial imperatives. They suggest that data user and producers need to be aware of the data and how it is used.

Evelyn Ruppert asked where are the data citizens? Discuss the politics in data, and thinking about the people as subjects in data – seeing people as actors who are intentional and political in their acts of creating data. Being digital mediates between people and technology and what they do. There are myriad forms of subjectivation – there are issues of rights and how people exercise these rights. Being a digital citizens – there is not just recipient of rights but also the ability to take and assert rights. She used the concept of cyberspace as it is useful for understanding rights of the people who use it, while being careful about what it means. There is conflation of cyberspace and the Internet and failures to see it as completely separate space. She sees Cyberspace is the set of relations and engagements that are happening over the Internet. She referred to her recent book ‘Being Digital Citizens‘. Cyberspace has relationships to real space – in relations to Lefebvre concepts of space. She use speech-act theory that explore the ability to act through saying things, and there is a theoretical possibility of performativity in speech. We are not in command of what will happen with speech and what will be the act. We can assert acts through the things we do, and not only in the thing we say and that’s what is happening with how people use the Internet and construct cyberspace.

Jo Bates talked about data cultures and power in the city. Starting from hierarchy in dat and information. Data can be thought as ‘alleged evidence’ (Buckland) – data can be thought as material, they are specific things – data have dimensionality, weight and texture and it is existing something. Cox, in 1981, view the relationship between ideas, institutions and material capabilities – and the tensions between them – institutions are being seen as stabilising force compare to ideas and material capabilities, although the institutions may be outdated. She noted that sites of data cultures are historically constituted but also dynamic and porous – but need to look at who participate and how data move.

The session followed by a discussion, some of the issues: I’ve raised the point of the impact of methodological individualism on Evelyn and Jim analysis – for Evelyn, the digital citizenship is for collectives, and for Jim, the provenance and use of devices is done as part of collectives and data cultures. Jo explored the idea of “progressive data culture” and suggested that we don’t understand what are the conditions for it yet – the inclusive, participatory culture is not there. For Evelyn, data is only possible through the action of people who are involved in its making, and the private ownership of this data does not necessarily make sense in the long run. Regarding hybrid space view of cyberspace/urban spaces – they are overlapping and it is not helpful to try and separate them. Progressive data cultures require organisational change at government and other organisations. Tracey asked about work on indigenous data, and the way it is owned by the collective – and noted that there are examples in the arctic with a whole setup for changing practices towards traditional and local knowledge. The provenance goes all the way to the community, the Arctic Spatial Data Infrastructure there are lots of issues with integrating indigenous knowledge into the general data culture of the system. The discussion ended with exploration of the special case of urban/rural – noting to the code/space nature of agricultural spaces, such as the remote control of John Deere tractors, use of precision agriculture, control over space (so people can’t get into it), tagged livestock as well as variable access to the Internet, speed of broadband etc.

The second session looked at Data Infrastructure and platforms, starting with Till Straube who looked at Situating Data Infrastructure. He highlighted that Git (GitHub) blurs the lines between code and data, which is also in functional programming – code is data and data is code. He also looked at software or conceptual technology stacks, and hardware is at the bottom. He therefore use the concept of topology from Science and Technology Studies and Actor-Network Theory to understand the interactions.

Tracey Lauriaultontologizing the city – her research looked at the transition of Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) with their core GIS – the move towards object-oriented and rules based database. How is the city translated into data and how the code influence the city? She looked at OSi, and the way it produce the data for the island, and providing infrastructure for other bodies (infrastructure). OSi started as colonial projects, and moved from cartographical maps and digital data model to a full object-oriented structure. The change is about understanding and conceptualising the mapping process. The ontology is what are the things that are important for OSi to record and encode – and the way in which the new model allows to reconceptualise space – she had access to a lot of information about the engineering, tendering and implementation process, and also follow some specific places in Dublin. She explore her analysis methods and the problems of trying to understand how the process work even when you have access to information.

The discussion that follows explored the concept of ‘stack’ but also ideas of considering the stack at planetary scale. The stack is pervading other ways of thinking – stack is more than a metaphor: it’s a way of thinking about IT development, but it can be flatten. It gets people to think how things are inter-relations between different parts. Tracey: it is difficult to separate the different parts of the system because there is so much interconnection. Evelyn suggested that we can think about the way maps were assembled and for what purpose, and understanding how the new system is aiming to give certain outcomes. To which Tracey responded that the system moved from a map to a database, Ian Hacking approach to classification system need to be tweaked to make it relevant and effective for understanding systems like the one that she’s exploring. The discussion expanded to questions about how large systems are developed and what methodologies can be used to create systems that can deal with urban data, including discussion of software engineering approaches, organisational and people change over time, ‘war stories’ of building and implementing different systems, etc.

The third and last session was about data analytics and the city – although the content wasn’t exactly that!

Gavin McArdle covered his and Rob Kitchin paper on the veracity of open and real-time urban data. He highlighted the value of open data – from claims of transparency and enlighten citizens to very large estimation of the business value. Yet, while data portals are opening in many cities, there are issues with the veracity of the data – metadata is not provided along the data. He covered spatial data quality indicators from ISO, ICA and transport systems, but questioned if the typical standard for data are relevant in the context of urban data, and maybe need to reconsider how to record it. By looking at 2 case studies, he demonstrated that data is problematic (e.g. indicating travel in the city of 6km in 30 sec). Communicating the changes in the data to other users is an issue, as well as getting information from the data providers – maybe possible to have meta-data catalogue that add information about a dataset and explanation on how to report veracity. There are facilities in Paris and Washington DC, but they are not used extensively

Next, Chris Speed talked about blockchain city – spatial, social and cognitive ledgers, exploring the potential of distributed recording of information as a way to create all forms of markets in information that can be controlled by different actors.

I have closed the session with a talk that is based on my paper for the workshop, and the slides are available below.

The discussion that followed explored aspects of representation and noise (produced by people who are monitored, instruments or ‘dirty’ open data), and some clarification of the link between the citizen science part and the philosophy of technology part of my talk – highlighting that Borgmann use of ‘natural’,’cultural’ and ‘technological’ information should not be confused with the everyday use of these words.

New paper: Anticipatory Logics of the Global Smart City Imaginary

Jim White’s paper, ‘Anticipatory Logics of the Global Smart City Imaginary’, is available for download on the Social Science Research Network as Programmable City Working Paper 8.

Abstract

The smart city encompasses a broad range of technological innovations which might be applied to any city for a broad range of reasons. In this article, I make a distinction between local efforts to effect the urban landscape, and a global smart city imaginary which those efforts draw upon and help sustain. While attention has been given to the malleability of the smart city concept at this global scale, there remains little effort to interrogate the way that the future is used to sanction specific solutions. Through a critical engagement with smart city marketing materials, industry documents and consultancy reports, I explore how the future is recruited, rearranged and represented as a rationalisation for technological intervention in the present. This is done across three recurring crises: massive demographic shifts and subsequent resource pressure; global climate change; and the conflicting demands of fiscal austerity and the desire of many cities to attract foreign direct investment and highly-skilled workers. In revealing how crises are pre-empted, precautioned and prepared for, I argue that the smart city imaginary normalises a style and scale of response deemed appropriate under liberal capitalism.

Keywords: smart cities, the urban age, anticipation, risk

Download the pdf from the SSRN.

CFP: Technological imaginaries and the production of space

Conference of Irish Geographers 2015, Queens University Belfast, 21-24 May 2015

This session aims to think through the complex relationship between space and technology. The proliferation of smart phones and city-scale embedded devices is reshaping homes, work places and cities. Rather than focus explicitly on how technologies might autonomously and automatically produce such spaces, our focus is the broader imaginaries which pre-empt and prefigure sociotechnical systems. We are interested in submissions that explore how space is produced or performed through contested relationships between technologies, imaginaries and situated practices. This might mean, on the one hand, to approach technologies by reflecting on cultural representations or utopian visions of the future. On the other hand, imaginaries might be understood through the ways communities, social groups or initiatives think about already existing technologies. We are open to a broad range of theoretical and methodological approaches.

Contributions may respond to various topics, including but not limited to urban planning, surveillance, emergency response, energy management, sustainable transportation or everyday consumption and mobility. The following questions might be addressed:

  • what kinds of urban futures are being imagined and what are the technologies mobilised for such imaginaries?
  • how are technologies evoked as a solution to contemporary problems or perceived threats?
  • what space-times are evoked or rearranged?
  • what forms of resistance to dominant visions are being practiced or displayed?
  • how are politics articulated within utopian and dystopian imaginations?
  • how are the coupling of bodies, technologies and data imagined, planned and enacted?
  • how is human and nonhuman agency perceived and practiced in relation to technological imaginaries?

Potential contributors are free to contact us prior to submission of their abstract. Contact email: james.white.2014@nuim.ie.

Abstracts must be submitted online at the Conference of Irish Geographers website.

Deadline: March 20, 2015.

Hailo, Uber and the deregulation of Ireland's taxi industry

This afternoon’s black cab blockade of London comes in response to car ride apps that are changing the character of the city’s taxi industry. While there has been little visible backlash against comparable services in Ireland, it seems only a matter of time before these struggles find their way to our shores.

The market-leading smart phone taxi service in Ireland is Hailo. Self-described as “the evolution of the hail”, Hailo was founded in November 2011 by three London taxi drivers and three entrepreneurs. It launched in Dublin, its second city, in July 2012 and as of mid-2014, provides sporadic coverage across the country with a specific attention on areas of high population density.

HailO dominates in Dublin by Brandon Zeman

To use Hailo as a potential passenger, one needs simply to download and launch their free smart phone application. To use the Hailo as a driver, things are a little more complicated. One must sign up using a geographically specific online portal (such as exists for London, Ireland, New York, Boston and Tokyo). Registration is restricted to licensed taxi drivers such that Hailo is effectively leveraging the screening procedures of existing small public service vehicle (SPSV) infrastructure in Ireland. Of Dublin’s 12,000 registered taxi drivers, I’ve been told that about half are using the service.

In this post I will describe two observations on the role Hailo plays in Dublin: that it competes with existing taxi infrastructure, and that it capitalises on and potentially extends the deregulation of transportation in the city. I will briefly compare the service to Uber and Lyft, and argue why their competition will likely bring the taxi wars to Dublin.

Hailo competes with existing taxi infrastructure

In addition to plying for hire (being in motion and available for hire) and standing for hire (being stationary and available for hire), taxi drivers can increase their number of fares by enrolling to a radio service. When a customer phones a taxi company, this company then leverages its radio-enabled network to source an available taxi driver. Cab drivers working in Dublin have told me that subscription to such a service can cost as much as €5,000 per year. This service is dependent upon a radio communications unit being physically installed into driver’s vehicle, the hire of which is presumably incorporated into the cost of the service.

Hailo, in drawing upon already existing smart phone usage, does not need to install any radio communications infrastructure. This means lower fixed capital costs and lower associated installation and maintenance costs. Furthermore, by having software perform the role of the radio operator, there are presumably fewer attendant labour costs.

These factors lead to a considerably different pricing model. Rather than charge a yearly subscription fee, Hailo is free to install and use, but charges a 12% commission on every fare sourced through the application. In order to compete with these rates, a €5,000 per year radio service would need to direct €41,667 worth of fares to each driver. Understandably, Hailo poses a considerable threat to Dublin’s taxi radio companies.

There is however an important geographical caveat which needs to be made. In cities such as Dublin – where there is a confluence of high population density, a high number of taxis per head and a high usage of smart phones – the benefits of Hailo to both drivers and passengers outweigh those offered by taxi radio companies. In a geographical location where taxi or smart phone use is more sparsely distributed however, Hailo has less opportunity to draw upon existing infrastructure. Where I work in Maynooth – a small university town 20 kilometres west of Dublin – it is very difficult to find a taxi using Hailo. In such locations both spatial scarcity and community loyalty lead me to suppose far less competition between Hailo and existing taxi radio services. In these instances, the volume of jobs rather than rate of commission is the important factor.

Hailo availability in Dublin versus Maynooth

Competing SPSV smart phone service Uber, which has been recently valued at a truly astounding $18.2bn1, launched in Dublin in January 2014. Uber operates under a business model which is far more challenging to existing taxi infrastructures as a whole. Rather than recruit taxi drivers exclusively, Uber is open to private hire vehicle (or limousine) drivers as well. Less regulation on the cost of limousine services allows the company to employ a surge pricing model, so that fares can cost considerably more than a standard rate (up to as much as eight times more expensive in rare incidences of peak demand). The cost of an SPSV licence for limousines in Ireland is only €250, compared to the €6,300 for a taxi licence. While cars must still be deemed as fit for such a purpose, and drivers must similarly undergo clearance by An Garda Síochána, Uber hopes that its matchmaking infrastructure for limousine services will allow its service to compete favourably with the taxi industry as a whole. It’s probably too soon to draw any conclusions on the success of the company in Dublin, but you can be sure they are here for the long run. Uber have money to burn and their CEO Travis Kalanick has a combative attitude toward vested interests.

Hailo capitalises on and potentially extends the deregulation of transportation in the city

As described above Hailo is most effective in urban areas where there is already considerable competition amongst taxi drivers. Uptake amongst drivers is dependent upon a pull effect, whereby not using the service would render them excluded from a proportion of the passenger market. There is, as such, a supply-and-demand-like positive feedback loop between the driver and passenger applications. Increased use of the application by one group would be expected to result in an increase in use by the other.

It was not always so easy to hail a taxi in Dublin. Between 1978 and 2000 local authorities in Ireland were entitled to limit the number of taxi licences issued in their area. In Dublin, the number of licences in circulation between 1978 and 1988 was fixed at 1,800. This number was increased slowly through the late 1980s and 1990s to around 2,800 by the end of the decade. Supply was not kept up with demand however. By the late 1990s the cost of purchasing a licence on the open market was as much as €100,000. In line with its commitment to improving Dublin’s taxi services, the Action Programme for the Millennium encouraged the issuance of 3,100 new licences in the city in November 1999. This was not found to be enough however, as one year later, on November 21, 2000, S.I No. 367/20002 lifted licensing regulations in Ireland. This had the immediate effect of devaluing existing licences and subsequent enquiries and legal cases have been undertaken to assess the fairness of this deregulation. The change has had its intended effect however. By 2008, union estimates placed the number of taxi licences nationwide at 19,000 with 12,000 of those being held in Dublin. Locals tell me that these days it is much easier to get a cab home after a night out than it was in the 1990s.

Under conditions where taxi drivers do not have to compete so vigorously for fares (under a licence-restricted, consortium-based or heavily unionised model rather than the predominantly individualised system currently in operation in Ireland), there would be little pressure for them to use Hailo. And as I’ve already argued, no drivers using the service would translate to no passengers using it either. Indeed it is quite clear from various interviews and media appearances that Hailo have made tactical decisions about how and in which cities they introduce their service.

While Hailo takes advantage of such spaces of deregulation, it has been careful so far to adhere to local legislation. The service does not on its own necessitate a further deregulation of the SPSV sector in Ireland. Hailo is not unique however. Competitors include the globe-spanning Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Wingz, Summon and Flywheel in the USA, cab:app, Cab4Now, Get Taxi and Kabbee in London and Chauffeur-Privé in France. These transportation network companies compete on a range of business models, services and geographical coverage. This marketplace of competing car ride apps has the potential to push against regulations which are in place to control regional SPSV sectors in Ireland.

Consider the following examples from what’s been called the taxi wars.

Since March 2014, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been pushing for the deregulation of the limousine industry in Miami, Florida specifically to make way for the introduction of Uber. The taxi and limousine industry in Miami-Dade county is strongly regulated. The industry caters to a population of over 2,500,000 people through 2,121 taxi medallions (which is the equivalence of a vehicle licence in Ireland). This has forced the market price of a medallion to around $340,000, 28% of which are owned by taxi drivers. Similarly, limousines licences are limited to 625 in number. Services must be booked an hour in advance with rides costing a minimum of $70. This regulation is directly restrictive of Uber’s business model. After Senator Rubio’s efforts to clear the company’s way stalled, actor Ashton Kutcher was recruited to tackle regulation from a different front, decrying the city’s bizarre, old, antiquated legislation” on Jimmy Kimmel Live. On May 22 rival company Lyft – “your friend with a car”, which adopts a decentralised ride sharing model – launched in Miami on a donation-based payment scheme. This forced a response by Uber, which launched its comparably modelled UberX service in the city on June 4. These are not isolated events. Similar changes are being forced on other regions of the US such as: Arlington, Virginia; San Antonio, California; and Austin, Texas.

London Cabs by rosipaw

Uber arrived in London, it’s first European city, in mid-2012. London’s taxi industry consists of over 25,000 hackney carriage taxis serving a daytime population of around 10,000,000. In order to obtain a taxi licence, or Green Badge, drivers must pass to a knowledge test covering a 113 square mile area of the city which is purported to require up to five years of study. Uber, in accepting any driver with a private hire vehicle licence, poses a clear threat to the time and money that London’s taxi drivers have invested in their profession. In recent weeks, The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association has summoned six Uber drivers to court, alleging that the Uber smartphone app is equivalent to a taximeter and therefore illegal under the 1998 Private Hire Act which reserves that right for licensed taxi drivers. In addition, the London taxi-driver’s union lambast Transport for London for failing to pursue the illegal activities which Uber facilitate, suggesting that the state body is afraid of the money backing Uber. In response, Transport for London has sought a binding decision from the high court regarding the legality of the smart phone taximeter.

The way in which other transportation network companies have responded to Uber’s entrance into the London market is important in the case of Ireland. Hailo have announced that they will extend their services to private hire vehicles in addition to taxis. This was news was not well accepted by the industry, with the word ‘scabs’ being gratified on the wall of Hailo’s London office. The company responded on their website, insisting that they are simply following consumer demand. Assuming the move doesn’t too badly damage its position among existing service users, we can expect to see something similar in Ireland, either to pre-empt or combat Uber’s growing market share. Not all apps are going the way of private vehicle hire however. Competitor Cab:app has pushed back against the trend set by Uber and Hailo, asserting publicly its commitment to the taxi industry.

Protests in London and throughout Europe today (June 11, 2014) are in direct opposition to Uber’s perceived infringement upon the taxi industry. In the past, strike action has escalated to involve the destruction of property. In January 2014, Parisian taxi drivers struck in opposition to Uber’s unregulated market competition. Confrontations between unionised taxi drivers and Uber drivers resulted in “Smashed windows, tires, vandalized vehicle[s], and bleeding hands”.

The Irish SPSV sector is admittedly quite different from comparable industries in America, the UK and France. Hailo does not face the same kind of regulatory barriers in Ireland as it would in parts of the US. The National Taxi Drivers’ Union is less powerful than taxi unions in London, and certainly less militant than those in Paris. Hailo is a relatively well behaved company in this sector however. As competitors such as Uber and Lyft seek to expand their more aggressive strategies throughout Europe, it is highly likely, given the success of Hailo and Dublin’s reputation as a high-tech-friendly city, that a real push will be made to establish a foothold in Ireland. Spokesperson for Uber’s international operations Anthony El-Khoury has told the Irish Times: “We see a lot of potential in the Irish market and a lot of demand”. As this market heats up, pressure to further deregulate the SPSV industry will be put on Dublin City Council and the Irish government.

The future of the SPSV sector in Ireland

These two preliminary observations on the role of Hailo in Dublin are commensurate with larger tendencies of state deregulation and market-oriented competition. While the emergence of car ride apps may be positioned as a form of Schumpeterian creative-destruction, there are larger political and economic forces within which these applications should be contextualised. I have attempted to sketch some of these forces in this blog post.

The taxi industry is regulated for a reason. The screening and approval of drivers is important in ensuring accountability and the safety of passengers. Regular metering and Ireland’s nationwide fare system (which was instituted in September 2006) make certain that taxis provide an honest and consistent service that does not gouge rural communities or those in need. While Hailo operates under a minimally challenging model to these standards, it does not exist in a vacuum. By exploiting the freer regulation of limousines, Uber is effectively side-stepping many but not all of them. By doing away with accreditation altogether, Lyft would throw these standards onto the wills of the market. Car ride apps have the potential to put huge pressure on the taxi and limousine business. If other European cities are anything to go by Ireland’s SPSV sector is likely to be forced to deregulate further in coming years. This impacts the price, availability and safety of taxi services, and undercuts the ability of workers in the industry to bargain for fair pay and work conditions. It is important that any changes to the sector be submitted to proper public scrutiny and debate.

Jim Merricks White

Updates

June 12 – An article on RTE alerted me to the recent launch of Wundercar in Dublin. The app seems to follow the Lyft or UberX business model, whereby unlicensed drivers give passengers a lift somewhere in the city for “tips”. Drivers are screened by Wundercar rather than An Garda Síochána.

June 22 – The Independent reported on June 20 that Hailo is offering a suite of new services targeting the business sector. Most significant to my discussion here is the introduction of the company’s limousine option to Ireland. Limousine licences are considerably cheaper than taxi licences and there are fewer regulations on fare pricing.


  1. Aswath Damodaran of New York University claims that a more accurate valuation would be around $6bn. By way of comparison Hailo was valued, 18 months ago, at a far more modest $140m.

  2. Also called Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2000.

Public Event – Rethinking the Smart City: A Primer

The Programmable City project is excited to be supporting an upcoming public discussion with Adam Greenfield around the concept of the smart city.

When: March 24th 7pm – 9pm
Where: Dunlop Oriel House, Corner of Fenian Street 7 Westland Row, Dublin 2
Map: http://bit.ly/1i7YapE
Speakers: Adam Greenfield, with an introduction by Rob Kitchin
Respondents: Aphra Kerr (NUIM), Jim Merricks White (NUIM) Rachel O’Dwyer (TCD)

The event is organised by Provisional University & Dublin Art & Technology Association.

Admission is free but places are limited. To book go to http://bit.ly/O7zu6h.

It’s generally understood that a smart city refers to integrated information and communication technologies, embedded sensor networks and smart girds rapidly becoming part of the infrastructural fabric of our cities, and contributing to its overall function and management. But the smart city is not just an informational overlay. It extends to a broader rationality for resource management (water, energy, transport, air), for governance and agency administration, and for economic stimulation.

While this is significant, various factors seem to have prevented extended public discussion about smart cities. This might be because planning for the smart city is still limited to academic research institutions and government initiatives. It might also be the case that the disciplinary approach to the smart city means it doesn’t always join up with other relevant discussions about urban planning and policy, resource management and the right to the city currently taking place, even though we share and articulate many of the same concerns. We therefore see this event as a primer for more ongoing discussion on the smart city, as it relates to these broader issues and particularly as it relates to Dublin City.

What are we talking about when we talk about the smart city? What limitations are there to the way that the smart city is currently articulated? What alternatives might exist?

Biographies:

Adam Greenfield is a writer, urbanist and founding director of New York City-based design practice Urbanscale. His work focuses on the intersection of design, technology and culture, with a strong interest in urban form and metropolitan experience. Greenfield is the author of Everyware: the Dawning age of Ubiquitous Computing (New Riders, 2006) and Against the Smart City (The city is here for you to use) alongside Nurri Kim (Do Projects, 2013). Adam is also Senior Urban Fellow at LSE Cities.

Rob Kitchin is a professor and ERC Advanced Investigator in the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.  His book ‘Code/Space’ (with Martin Dodge) won the Association of American Geographers ‘Meridian Book Award’ for the outstanding book in the discipline in 2011. He is currently a PI on the Programmable City project, the Digital Repository of Ireland, and the All-Island Research Observatory.