Urban Infomatics Breakout
By Howard Rheingold, Tue Jan 13 11:00:00 GMT 2004

If you want to understand cities today and especially in the future, keep mobile communications in mind. Ten years from now, understanding the way people use mobile media will be as fundamental to urban planning as understanding the buildings they inhabit and vehicles they use.

I started writing about the growing importance of urban informatics in a previous article for TheFeature: Cities, Swarms, and Cellphones. More recently, I asked: Does Mobile Telephony Disrupt City Life? My collection of links about interesting new developments in the field continues to grow in both diversity and number. How can we begin to think about a future in which cities are swarmed by constantly shifting populations of ubiquitous communicators whose devices weave ad-hoc mesh, networks of mobile communication devices? Around the world, a diverse population of scientists, scholars, urban planners, artists, activists, cool kids and cool kid hunters have been approaching the question in different ways.

Forecasters sometimes talk about driving forces that can be seen inaction right now, and critical uncertainties that are not yet decided, and which will influence the kind of scenario the driving force turns into.

When trying to envision the cities of the future today, one driving force we can be fairly certain about is the decreasing cost and increasing adoption of mobile communication devices; Moore's Law, Metcalfe's Law, and Reed's Law all work together to guarantee that a large chunk of the population will be carrying wireless supercomputers in their pocket a decade hence. And the emergence of texting worldwide tells us to expect that the people who know how to use the most advanced features of mobile media will be under 20. A city where almost everybody has an Internet-linked mobile phone, and the ones who really know how to use them are teenagers, is a very different entity from a city where only a fraction of the population is always connected. But how is it different? How might daily life change? That's the uncertain part.

I believe the most important critical uncertainty today is whether location-based media will develop as an open system like the Internet, where everybody will be free to associate a review, a photo, a video, a map, a work of art, a political polemic, a database, with specific locations -- or whether information associated with places will be a closed system where only those who buy a certain brand of proprietary software or only those who own the local franchise will have the right to write geodata to the readers almost everybody uses. Will entire populations of city-dwellers create, use, and exchange information and media associated with geographic locations? Or will the right to write or access restaurant reviews, geospecific photographs, neighborhood crime stats be constrained? If Westlaw can own the law, anything is possible. Will the cities of 2010 be inhabited by billions users of geolocation information systems and weavers of ad-hoc communication networks? Or will we be passive consumers of pre-packaged content fabricated by a few dozen synthetic superstars.

I see a decisive, if largely invisible battle in progress between the forces of closed systems and the forces of open systems. Here are a few nuggets from a growing collection of reported experiments in urban informatics around the world. Let's start with the obvious power on the side of proprietary geoinfo: Sean Savage, who coined the term "flash mob," raised the issue of Microsoft's service linking proprietary digital photographs to specific locations. One might well raise the valid point that nothing stops anyone else from providing free photos of the same locations, and I hope that will be the case. And nothing stops anyone from providing alternative PC operating systems or web browsers.

Let's just say that the first principle in any digital business is to know whether or not Microsoft is eying their territory. Savage noted two of the efforts approaching geo-tagged media from an open systems perspective, Locative Media Lab and Placelab Initiative. Starhill is an ongoing source of technical, political, social aspects of "Microlocal and Geospatial News and Views."

Anne Galloway alerted me to the controversy that emerged around William Mitchell's new book. MIT's Mitchell, whose City of Bits was a founding document of urban informatics, has published a new book, Me++ that "examines the effects of wireless linkage, global interconnection, miniaturization, and portability on our bodies, our clothing, our architecture, our cities, and our uses of space and time." Mitchell talked about his ideas in a Guardian article. Kevin Hamilton criticized Mitchell's approach.

Another observer of technosocial networks, MIT "urban sociologist" Keith Hampton, alerted me to a forthcoming book: Cybercities Reader. My friends at Aula have been actively exploring mixtures of virtual and physical worlds in downtown Helsinki since 2001. There are plenty of outliers - curious individuals, techno-tribes, corporate researchers, self-organized swarms, and municipalities who are playing today with aspects of augmented urban realities. I'll return to this theme in future articles.

What do you think of the future, nature, and political overtones of urban geoinfo services? What other developments do you know about?