Really accessing the digital to own the public space ?— the start of a prototype

Mixing the words digital, inequality, and segregation doesn’t really sound weird nowadays. But when discussing specifically urban segregation and urban inequality, adding ‘digital’ might still sound odd. With urban most of us tend to think infrastructure, roads, badly planned neighborhoods, very physical stuff. Its digital layer escapes most conversations; it is hard to grasp how urban inequality is or is related to ‘digital’.

But such link is strong. A number of research organizations and scholars are investigating and showing evidence of how digital inequality reinforces processes of segregation we witness in the physical world. There is more and more evidence that Internet technologies seem to be reproducing existing social and economic divisions and relationships. See, for instance, the work of the Oxford Internet Institute, on information geography and inequality. Two of its researchers, Mark Graham and Joe Shaw posit questions like this: what rights do citizens have, not just to public and private spaces, but to their digital equivalents? (An ‘Informational Right to the City’?)

The project I’m working attempt to deal precisely with this, segregation in both the physical and digital spaces; which pretty much related to the digital divide. It deals with the ‘knowledge is power’ issue.

It is a small prototype project, and is being designed out of an unusual mixture of action, failure, research, reading, and day-dreaming (not necessarily in order). The project’s final goal is to help fight inequity and segregation, -both phenomena with physical and digital layers, by experimenting with digital technologies and tackling locally defined problems. By doing so, we hope to help reconfigure the public space. We are running the lab as a prototype, iterating, learning and adapting at each step.

The current specific objectives are a) to grow capabilities and empowerment by experimenting with open science & technology (incl. internet use), targeting neighbors living in two vulnerable areas at the footsteps of an urban hill called Sombrero, Teniente Merino and Francisco Werchez (where many Haitian immigrants live), and b) investigate and document how this experimentation helps create space for local definition(s) of problems that could actually be tackled. New methods of problem identification and definition/construction will be tested or tested.

Fly with kites

But this prototype/learning project didn’t come out of the blue. At the beginning of 2016 I was collaborating with a group of locals some of whom had 3 years ago started a successful reforestation project at the footsteps of the hill (more details in a previous post). They were eager to upscale their efforts and move towards creating a green park in the hill when I came to them with this unconventional yet for them sensitive idea of designing the park through a co-production process with community members. I had also gotten into a research residency in The Netherlands, around the topic of Big Data and this lab park as research project.

I had no idea how to approach Big Data, period.

There was no way we were going to access big data, create it or manage it. Big data related to the communities surrounding this urban hill is either non-existent, or it is in the hands of companies like Facebook (Facebook and Whatsapp are two of the most used apps among the hill’s neighbors).

So a step back was to ask what type of data this group of neighbors could get or collect in order to advance their plan to create a park. And the answer was thick data, context rich data, qualitative data. Data that was highly needed to understand the systems and actors that could allow or block the plans to create a park. So that’s what I planned on researching during my participation of the Age of Wonderland program. But I didn’t want to this be only a research project, but link it to the practices and efforts of this group back in Chile.

Armed with a set of hypotheses, and in collaboration with the reforestation group and a street theater group, I proposed we carried out a series of street interventions aimed at gathering tick data. Collective mapping and in-depth interviewing were two of the ethnographic methods used, but being my first time really exploring ethnography, these efforts could hardly receive the epithet ‘amateur’. This would help them in their efforts to create the park, and maybe form the basis for my research in The Netherlands.

The data gathering happened in the neighborhoods surrounding the hill, where we interviewed and talked to about 50 people. But the analysis happened in The Netherlands. The reading, of course, happened throughout the whole period, which resulted in written ideas shaping action and vice versa. And this cycle of learning, although erratic, was certainly novel and exciting. I was actually supposed to be learning, through both execution and research. But all this learning made sense and came into clarity during the analysis we carried out in Eindhoven. With ‘we’ I refer to two designers I partnered with in order to present at the Dutch Design Week. Without them neither the analysis nor the visualization could have been possible.

As it happens with thick data, it surprised us, shading light into issues that had been overlooked. And it killed our mayor hypotheses on how change (from a forgotten hill to a thriving lab park) was supposed to happen. But of course thick data didn’t do anything in itself. It was its interpretation what completed the loop (or ‘sort of’). And also as it happens with Big Data, this interpretation was fed by theories and ideas, Aaron Swartz was one key guide. Another source of understanding came from partnering with people with a very different set of skills to mine, and similar passions: a visual designer, and a urban designer + human geographer. Data, they rightly emphasized, wasn’t only showing needs or problems, but also potential in the form of actors, tools and activities, which were already present in the hill or around it.

Isis and Marta, doing some visual drafting
One of the white canvas we got to show some of the results of the research.
Making kites with visitors at the DDW 2016

The feeding ideas (found mid-way the data gathering) were mostly those related to digital technologies and power. In a lecture called “Uneven Geographies of Power and Participation in the Internet era” OII’s Mark Graham shows evidence of how there is not a lot of content created from or created about the global south, of how people and places are figuratively and literally left out of the map.

A quick search for two of the neighborhoods close to the hill, in Wikipedia, Google Maps and Open Street Map makes this statement quite tangible: those two neighborhoods are not searchable in these platforms. As Graham’s says, the means and ability to produce digital and coded information might amplify some of these already existing imbalances of voice and power in participation. But ‘connectivity’, he warms, is necessary but not sufficient.

And we easily saw all that, most people around the hill would certainly count as ‘connected’, but do they really have access to knowledge? Are they really free to search for knowledge with a slow connection or limited data capacity in their phones? If we search for openness of physical public spaces, we ought to search for the openness of the second layer of this public space: the digital, which might involve opposing the privatization of knowledge.

One of the main things our thick data showed was the prevalence of technology and connectivity concerns among neighbors. In ninety per cent of the conversations with people of all ages, the issue of how were they connected (or not) came up. And what did it mean being connected? It meant Facebook and Whatsapp, inconsistent access, mobiles phones and sometimes Internet cafes, not laptops or persnal computers. It meant people buying pre-paid navigation packages, which offered unlimited access to those two apps but none or very limited actual internet browsing capacity (and all that for no little money).

What was interesting is that I was not really looking for this sort of information at the beginning; people were just grabbing their phones and mentioning all this, mainly after our question of how to stay in touch with them. Those who didn’t have a smart phone (quite a few) seemed frustrated for not having one and being ‘disconnected’, while others lamented being only ‘sometimes connected’. Almost nobody had an email account. For one of the activities we invited and got verbal confirmation of at least 100 people. But the only ones who showed up were exactly those who had confirmed via a Google form, including 8 and 12 years old kids we had met in one of our street interventions weeks before.

Thick data challenged my assumptions. My main hypothesis was that a technically sound park design (created with a diverse group of community members) was going to gain approval from technical public organizations in charge of implementing these sorts of projects. But that was not going to be the case. The decision of whether to turn this hill into an open public space was going to be mostly political, not mostly technical. Obvious, you might say (and I agree): “It’s about blood and war and power, not evidence and argument and policy” (A Database of Folly). A strong community demanding change was needed but such readiness, such community-organizing capacity just wasn’t there. Here my second hypothesis was debunked. I had assumed a much more empowered community. But depending on the neighborhood, different levels of powerlessness were rather evident. We found a community that has grown –not surprisingly- accustomed to top-down approaches to any ‘public making’. A co-production process did not seem likely to gain traction.

A co-designed lab park not looking likely, probably being too ambitious, not an idea owned by the community, something resembling an ‘all-in-one-solution’. New (or old) manageable entry points were required. Maybe what was needed was to start fighting inequality and segregation through small bets, and not expect to get a park first to then do the fighting. This pushed a rearrangement of pieces in my own research but also regarding my collaboration with the local reforestation group. Some in the reforestation group decided to stay focused on improving, safeguarding and engaging community members on the reforestation at their own pace, while the ones who had started the reforestation years back decided to leave the group as there was a mismatch in values and mission with some of the newest members. Me? I was set off to explore the digital and physical mix, to see how to get us knowledge and power by tackling the digital divide observed. I mean inequality in access, but also in skills, usage and outcomes (the so called third level digital divide). But this time staying humble: deconstructing problems, pursuing small bets and small successes.

Photo by Age of Wonderland

The new hypotheses

So, my new main assumption was that in order to fight inequality and segregation is this physical space we need to tackle the digital layer of these phenomena in a very practical way, one that obviously relates to the physical layer. For instance, if the selected group of citizens was to define ‘access’ as one important problem, options could be getting training in the fabrication and use of balloon/kite mapping to register the territory, put the community on digital maps, identify conflict points, good access routes, or map every single home/business (maybe creating content in Open Street Map)? (What Public Lab does is quite inspirational at this point).

A second key assumption is that getting training by following a problem-solving process will lead positive outcomes. One expected outcome would therefore be empowerment over their physical territory, gaining capabilities as change agents.

Finally, another key assumption is that under-served, underrated and digitally ignored communities should engage actively in the debate over who should get to understand and control digital technologies and produce digital content. What does it mean to have digital rights and more specifically digital rights to the city, this city? In this sense, this project also finds inspiration in the open software and open hardware movements.

Big data and thick data will stay present on any designs and implementations coming out of this project. The dangers and potential of big data (how it “increases inequality and threatens democracy”) ought to be better understood. Thick data will have to help us stay context-focused and inspired.

We are currently two in the team, and looking for collaborators. If you get hooked on words like open, space, urban, ethnography, software, data, research, hardware, knowledge, power or anything similar (no matter where in the world you are) raise your hand and email me! /

Ciencia y tecnologías abiertas y libres.