The City Is the Computer

The collection, storage, and distribution of the data related to a city and its objects is known as urban informatics.

In his essay “Walking in the City,” the French scholar Michel de Certeau talks about the “invisible identities of the visible.” He is talking specifically about the memories and personal narratives associated with a location. Until recently, this information was only accessible one-to-one — that is, by talking to people who had knowledge of a place.

But what if that data became one-to-many, or even many-to-many, and easily accessible via some sort of street-level interface that could be accessed manually, or wirelessly using a smartphone? This is essentially the idea behind urban computing, where the city itself becomes a kind of distributed computer. The pedestrian is the moving cursor; neighborhoods, buildings and street objects become the interface; and the smartphone is used to “click” or “tap” that interface.

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In the same way that a computer, mouse, and interface are required to operate a Web browser to surf sites, the equivalent components of street computing create a reality browser that enables the city dweller to “surf” urban objects.

On a broader level, the collection, storage and distribution of the data related to a city and its objects is known asurban informatics (described by one technologist as “a city that talks back to you”).

Smartphone in hand, what can the modern-day flaneur expect to find in this newly digitized urban environment?

First, thanks to the prevalence of GPS data, wayfinding is giving way (so to speak) to wayshowing, interfaces that provide specific directions from here to there and to social navigation, getting around with the help of others (avoiding traffic, for example) and then checking in with your friends when you get there. Similarly, our urban gadabout might take advantage of use-someplacetechnologies such as augmented reality, where physical space is overlaid with virtual data.

A good example is Streetmuseum, a Museum of London app that can overlay an archive photo of a street scene onto the same scene as shown through your smartphone’s camera.

Beyond augmented reality is amplified reality, where extra data is built into an object from the get-go. For example, the embedding of radio-frequency identification or near-field communication technologies in street objects enables the creation oflocative media (also called location-based media). These situated technologies contain data about a specific location, which is then beamed to devices as they come within range, an exchange known as a situated interaction. Think of the sound garden, where designers assign sounds to public places, which users can then listen to using Wi-Fi–enabled devices.

There is, sadly, the ever-present danger that advertisers and hucksters will take advantage of these technologies to turn the city into a giant billboard. But to the technologists and social scientists at the forefront of urban computing, the goal is enhanced civic engagement. To that end, where once the ideal of pervasive computing was to create seamless, unnoticeable technology, today’s urban computing designers want to build seamful[/url ]interfaces, whose visibility encourages users to interact directly with systems.

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Curatorial media allow for urban data curation, the careful collection of stories — histories as well as facts and figures — musing technologies called urban annotation systems. Since data are both curated and disseminated in such systems, this is known as read/write urbanism.

Is the urban computer a good thing? Well, it’s certainly an inevitable thing, so I wouldn’t waste too much breath complaining about it. Think about a regular PC: You can turn it off or you can use it for fun or for productivity. The urban computer is no different. You can ignore it (turning a city off is problematic), or you can use it to become a more attentive, engaged and concerned citizen. It’s a tool. Make it sing.

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