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Old school

"Who are the people?" asked Phillip Vlahogiannis Cr-Phillip-Vlahogiannis2012_0.jpgat this week's Hybrid City conference in Athens. Vlahogiannis is the mayor of the City of Yarra, a section of the suburbs of Melbourne, where a strong Vietnamese subculture and a small remnant of the Wurundjeri tribe are overshadowed demographically by the descendants of European immigrants - British, Greek, Italian. One reason he asked was this year's subtitle, "Data to the People".

Which people, what data, and for what purpose? On show were a variety of projects taking a more citizen-centric approach to the smart cities we're told lie in our mutual future. Or, rather, many speakers called it, "the" future.

The future. The smart city. The public interest. Why is there only one of each of these, and not many? someone asked. A good question: is this a science fiction film, which imagines everyone will dress exactly the same?

This is a group for whom "smart cities" are a questionable prospect: they'd like their cities to be smart, all right, but "smart as in people" rather than "smart" as in our master's technology. Speaking on urban myths of open data, Christian Ulrik Andersen had a pair of images that summed up the problem: one, a medieval wall with an open archway, the other an Apple office building, all glass with lighted cubicles clearly visible. One is transparent but entirely closed, one is opaque and walled off (and a little intimidating) but, now that no guards are posted, allows open access. Is either what we want?

Martijn de Waal, who talks of hacking the city with the relish of a 1988 teen discovering the internet, also had a pair of perfectly matched images: photographie-couleur-paris-1914-7.jpgan Albert Kahn photograph of Paris, 1914, when the newly literate populace wrote directly onto their buildings to advertise what could be found within, and a mock-up of today's augmented reality, in which every building has reviews and user ratings. The key difference, of course, is the shared experience in 1914, versus the personalized one of today. This is frightening in its own way: what society will we have if we can filter-bubble our real environments?

An Amsterdam University project set about studying how interlinked an Amsterdam square mile's worth of businesses were. They used three data sources: the Chamber of Commerce database of companies; images from Instagram, Google, and Panoramio; and check-ins from Foursquare. Each had its distinctive bias: the Chamber of Commerce data was "old and stale": people never updated anything. Foursquare was full of sports facilities: "I'm working out!". The images tended to be of boutiques.

At the awesome end of the spectrum was the University of Buffalo's Mark Böhlen, for whom data collection and analysis was only the beginning of getting people in a small village in Indonesia better water. Increasing density had led to contamination of the water wells; data proved how bad. Two years later, a local café advertises drinks made with the water drawn from the well Bohlen's team helped build, which is self-sustaining. What good is data if it does not lead to action?

This was my difficulty with another Amsterdam project, presented by Wouter Meys, that asked citizens to annotate their neighborhoods when out walking. Meys noted the many variables posed difficulties in designing, and that they struggled to keep people motivated over time. The latter seems simply solved: show them follow-through. See the eight-year-old FixMyStreet.

It's becoming increasingly hard not to view social media as a setback: the data generated, particularly on public systems like Twitter, is like crack to researchers. But, as in the just-mentioned project, you can only get answers to the questions you think to ask (from your biased point of view), and then only from the self-selected bunch who use those sites. Twitter for example, will give you a demographic skewed towards journalists. Don't we already know what those chatterboxes think? Lacking social media, you might try something more reliable; Aerial photography is expensive, true; the Local Data Company puts sensors in shop windows to measure footfall. Mike Philllips' "landscape of sentiment", found by analyzing tweets, may not be, as elsewhere a href="http://www.tarletongillespie.org/">Tarleton Gillespie has written, measuring anything real, looking at ourselves instead of outward.

"It's not about smart cities, it's about smart citizens," Phillips said, noting the disempowerment of a roomful of cold people unable to turn down the air conditioning. "Institutionalization of the infrastructure has a huge impact on us."

Back up 5,000 years. Athens is simultaneously hosting an exhibit of ancient Greek machinery. oldest-robot-athens-2015-smaller.jpgAnyone who thinks mankind has gotten smarter should see the stuff the ancients invented from scratch before electricity or steam: gizmos for measuring astronomical distances and latitudes, cranes, pantographs, and some wonderful magic tricks one can only call "rich people's toys", including an automated theatre, a water-powered singing bird, and even what must be the first-ever humanoid robot, dated to approximately 300 BC. Seeing that, it's easy to believe, as a (non-Greek) friend always tells me, that the Greeks had everything all figured out. Was the Athens of their day the smartest city?

"This is where everyone used to vote," a local friend said, pointing out the agora, the "home of democracy". Everyone, that is, who was a male citizen - at Wikipedia's best guess, about a fifth of Athens' then-population. Inclusion is one problem they never tried to solve.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

NB: The date of the servant robot of Philon has been corrected to 300, rather than 3,000.


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