Thesis Weeknote 15 [Gut Feel vs Good Advice]

Just a couple of weeks to finish the thesis are left. Fortunately, things have somewhat clicked into place at the last moment, and although I had a decision to make as to what exactly I wanted to do with all those parking ticket machines I had settled on, I finally ended up with a direction I’m happy to stand by and defend.

I had a final status-check meeting last week with my advisor, Gitte, and my head of programme, Simona, this week, in which we discussed some of the directions I’d outlined. Simona seemed concerned at my progress and where I was, but I felt comfortable with it – I’d had a thought the day before where things fell together, and had bounced them off Jacek the evening before over a beer, and I was, for the first time in ages, feeling happy with what my thesis was (is) becoming.

As I mentioned last week, I chose to take parking ticket machines as an example of devices/objects/things that exist (are ubiquitous) on the street, that combine lots of technologies, and that we don’t seem to do much with. As I wrote last week, What can we do with a box on every streetcorner (ie, has location and a direction) that is networked, contains processing power, a payment system, buttons for input and a small screen, and perhaps most excitingly, a printer (of receipts, cards, or stickers). I mean, surely we as a society can do better than print parking tickets for cars with all that?!

So. I pondered possibilities such as printing hyperlocal stamps, potentially focused at locals – I am from this part of this city, and I’m proud of it – or at tourists – I found this specific location, and I liked it, and this is what I was experiencing as I bought this stamp. I thought about the ability to print maps of the very immediate vicinity – but who is that for, really? If you live in an area, you know the area. If you aren’t from the area, you are generally there for a reason, and especially in a city the size of Copenhagen, it’s actually remarkably hard to get properly lost. There’s definitely an opportunity to print maps that point you in a particular direction – the nearest bus stop, or a randomly (or not so randomly) chosen cafe. Which leads quite quickly to ideas of local advertising of some sort, which in turn immediately runs into the issue of why anyone would want it. Still – with the possibility of hyperlocal advertising being so obvious, it could easily be added to any other concept, and it kind of surprises me that it isn’t already part of parking tickets. Some of the possibilities: “park here, take this ticket to the cafe across the road, get a discount on your latte if you buy it within the next 10 minutes” or maybe “buy a coffee across the road and get your parking for free”, or even “park here, buy a beer at the bar, and get free parking overnight – and here’s the number for a taxi company”. It could be variable throughout the day, or dependent on external factors (“it just started to rain? come into our store!”). Still, though, advertising alone doesn’t appeal to me as a focus of my thesis – it seems too directly commercial, business driven, not in any way working towards making cities more livable, solving a problem, or improving people’s experience or existence. Still – I can see it happening, and would make for a fascinating study or project in its own right. Onwards.

A direction suggested by Simona was to incorporate existing parking ticket machines into carsharing services in some sort of public-private partnership – wherever you are, find the nearest available car, reserve it, and print a map indicating how to get to it. It’s an appealing idea – freeing such knowledge from having to be either at a computer or from owning a smartphone; in many ways anything that encourages solutions that move people away from individual ownership of cars has got to be a good thing. And yet, I’ve decided not to take it further, based primarily on a gut feeling. I think my biggest problem is that it’s still car-focused, which makes the implied assumption that cars are still the best/preferred form of mobility in a city, and I don’t agree with that. An aspect I find interesting about most of the other concepts I’ve outlined, including the one that I hope to follow (below) is the statement that this existing infrastructure, which is part of everybody’s everyday experience of the street and the city, can also be utilized by those who do not drive. As Graham states in Disrupted Cities, “the construction, maintenance, and operations of [certain infrastructures] tends to privilege certain more powerful spaces and users over others.” – and I find an interesting tension in taking something that is currently clearly privileging car-based users, and creating a service using it that explicitly equally benefits those who are not. So despite the good advice, I’m moving on and putting this concept to one side.

And so, to the thought-in-progress that is my chosen direction.

I’ve been wondering for a while if my thinking about infrastructures and existing touchpoints could be combined with something related to open government data, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. Maybe something that required authentication – some sort of data that only local residents could access, or some finer grained information available at the local level than online? Or even just a generic ‘government printer’ allowing access to this data without requiring internet access or a smartphone? It didn’t quite add up, yet.

But reading a post about Code for America on the Urban Omnibus and revisiting AG’s post about Frameworks for Citizen Responsiveness suddenly made something click. Systems such as 3-1-1 already exist in New York and San Francisco (and elsewhere), essentially consisting of ways (generally phone, sms, web) of informing local authorities of non-urgent matters that need dealing with – potholes, dumped trash, a fallen tree branch. They are popular among authorities and citizens, just as they are. What I am proposing is, in essence, an additional channel of communication to such a service, using parking ticket machines as distributed networked printers across a city. My first thought was, in essence, that each of these machines could print a hyper-local todolist – all the things that the local authority were aware of within the immediate vicinity (say… a 200m radius) of the machine in question, and thus varying from machine to machine. There’s an element of closing the feedback loop in this, in isolation – you can call in and report a problem, and although it may be assigned a job number and appear online, who really checks that? But knowing that although that pothole won’t be fixed for a couple of weeks but somebody knows about it is reassuring. That information currently exists in some form, whether closed off to the public, or in the case of the 311 service, available online, or via a smartphone app. And if that knowledge is suddenly available to all, directly on the street, eliminating the digital divide – that starts becoming kind of interesting.

The idea sat in my sketchbook for a couple of days, and I added bits and pieces to it, but the next big step was to link up those thoughts with the concept that why not only be able to iron out problems (potholes, broken things), but also to be able to make suggestions for improvements? To truly participate in the tiny little patch of the city in which most people exist – whether that’s home, or the way to the bus stop, the park where the dog gets walked, or near the office. To have a say in where taxes get spent. Of course you could write a letter to the city council, and maybe even get a polite response back. But having that ability embedded within the urban fabric, immediately in the spaces in question? Not holding a thought, getting home, digging out the phone number/address/website needed, but being able to contribute that thought, right where it is needed.

What all this means, in practice, is actually quite simple and mundane. Parking ticket machines are able to print a todolist of what’s in store in the immediate vicinity – known problems, maybe local events, planning applications, etc, within a tight radius of a couple of hundred meters. It can also print a simple form to be filled in by hand to report a problem or make a suggestion – but already with the location defined, the time and date registered, a map printed on the back ready to be annotated.

As Aaron Cope so neatly puts it in his presentation on the Papernet: “walking the fine line between making it easy enough for people to bother putting data into a system and still useful enough to make it worth the trouble of getting it out”. And as a complete opposite to my earlier thoughts around authentication for access to data, there’s something intriguing about separating location from identity – you have access to this because you are here, not necessarily because you are you and you belong here. Nalini Kotamraju, in her talk at Harvard’s Berkman center makes the interesting point about the different expectations of relationships that governments or local authorities often have, and those that citizens often have when engaging with e-government services; often that is made concrete by the need to log in, to identify yourself by name, address, account number, resident’s number, etc – something which I don’t envision being part of this service at all.

In my mind, it becomes a combination of the 3-1-1 service (maybe using the Open311 standard or API); Adam’s framework for citizen responsiveness; and Stamen’s awesome walking papers project + the Papernet, encountered, accessed, and contributed to through a parking ticket machine. The idea draws quite directly from each of those projects, in parts, and pulls them together into a single service – and hopefully acquires some of my own perspective along the way. I’m also hoping to make a point separate from the final concept around how we perceive and utilize infrastructure(s) and technology, too, which has been my primary approach and angle throughout the project, but that will be something to package up in the final presentation and defence.

There’s still lots of work to do, of course, and not a lot of time left to do it in. It’ll be a balancing act of explaining those projects as much as needed to make my project make sense, while fleshing out the new parts and focusing specifically on what makes this project interesting rather than just a rehashing of existing thoughts from other people. I’m still uncertain whether creating a full-scale working model (with a receipt printer inside) would really make the project that much stronger, and be worth the time and effort it would undoubtedly take, or if I can tell a strong enough (and believable) narrative with photos, video, and smaller artifacts (such as mocked up receipts/maps/printouts). A lot rests on creating stickers and decals to put on existing ticket machines, out on the street, not only to photograph and tell the story with, but also to test out the idea with users, iterate details, figure out details of the physical interactions.

Suddenly, a lot relies on copywriting, icons, and working within the constraints of the physical world, to tell a coherent narrative.

There’s just lots to do, make, create. To design, you could say. Joy!

Finally, some links.

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