Signs of the Times: Assigning New Streets to an Entire Nation

Navigating through Seoul’s modern sprawl, you’d have to stop and ponder South Korea’s herculean attempt to transition the entire country to a new address system. Previously, Korea’s address system mirrored Japan’s, with cities divided into districts (“gu”) and neighborhoods (“dong”), and buildings numbered according to when they were built. Currently in the throes of migrating to a more globally standardized system, Korea is not only assigning new addresses to all its homes, businesses, and other establishments, but also retroactively mapping every old address in every official document to its new designation.

The new address system is poised to mitigate a great deal of navigational confusion. Nonetheless, this transition evokes an appreciation for the metadata that the old system contained: insight into how urban planners of yore made sense of their cities, and a record of architectural lineage. This was an address system that provided spatial and chronological information. (Still, one could contend the complete irrelevance of a history lesson when faced with the immediate task of finding one’s way from point A to B.) And what of informal address systems used in many parts of the world? Cities in India come to mind, where locals operate by way of relative descriptions rather than absolute addresses bestowed by authorities: “Take me to the building on MG Road next to the old famous paan shop near the big water tank.” Organic addresses that rely on collective memory for continuity, and word-of-mouth for dissemination, become seriously impractical in rapidly changing hyper-growth cities.

South Korea’s move from a traditional address system to a new utilitarian one reminds me of a curious story of redress familiar to many natives of Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. A historic roundabout in the heart of the city — once named Birch Roundabout, after British colonial administrator J. W. W. Birch — was later renamed Jalan Maharajalela, after his assassin. Even in the figurative afterlife, it seems that historical villains cannot escape their fate of being unceremoniously deposed.

Between Urban-Naturalism and Protest: Taking on Streets, Sidewalks, and Public Spaces

By conventions of city planning, taking over public spaces like streets, sidewalks, and squares often requires sanctioning, either from the authorities or a collective public conscience: from the permits issued to a restaurant that extends seating to the sidewalk to the sense of propriety when we attempt to bring a birthday party out to the neighborhood park. A ramble through Phnom Penh reminded me of the gamut of utilitarian and joyful confluences that emerge with an organic taking-over of public spaces.

Just outside the National Museum, as the roads close for pedestrian traffic after 6 pm, a couple takes to the sidewalk for a game of badminton. Nearby, a group of young men play a local spin of pick-up soccer with a rattan ball, and a woman and her granddaughter perform a few simple stretching exercises by the street corner.

Walking south into the bustle of the city, an intersection of commerce and utility, a durian vendor prepares fruits for sale and interacts with customers, while a quick fix takes place behind the scene of sidewalk economy.

More sidewalk economy, as two women with plastic chairs and a tank of gas set out a makeshift refueling station for passing motorbikes and scooters.

Tucked away from the bustle of the city, a group of men huddle over a game of chess under one of the ubiquitous cell-phone-provider umbrellas.

In the public square, nestled amidst the strikingly golden Khmer roofs and stupas, mass-scale group aerobics take place to lightly bouncing techno music, deep into dusk.

Against the regional backdrop of a vibrant Southeast Asia — a patchwork of countries and states at varying stages of governance and modernity — it would be remiss not to mention the taking-over of public spaces in acts of protest or civil disobedience. In many ways, the past decade has been an unprecedented one for the region, evidenced by the scale at which people have publicly expressed wishes, demands, and grievances when formal channels fail, whether at the quagmire of incompetence or outright governmental belligerence.

Recall the 2007 Saffron revolution in Burma, led by political activists and monks, the 2010 redshirt protests in Thailand, and last weekend’s unprecedented rally calling for fair and clean elections in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, organized through word-of-mouth, text messages, and online social networks.

Interlude: Of London, Protests, and Freedom — Offline and Online

While wandering through the streets of London’s city center recently, I found myself intrigued for a moment by the endlessly complex intersection of protest, democracy, anarchy, surveillance, constraint, and the remembrance of history. The events that recently unfolded on the streets of her city center provided an interesting backdrop to begin with: A demonstration against public spending cuts turned into a field night for anarchists, subverting the protest’s original agenda for a peaceful rally.

Strolling down London’s historic streets, I noticed that nearly every street corner is equipped with state-installed CCTV for public safety and security:

But before one kicks up a ruckus about surveillance and freedom, it’s important to note the genuinely democratic context of England’s parliamentary democracy. Like any democracy, discontent in established institutions is freely expressed, but at the same time, a sense of trust in the scale and reach of a benevolent government prevails. The notion of allowing a government to monitor the comings and goings of every street corner in the the service of protecting her citizens wouldn’t fly well with England’s counterparts across the Atlantic, who subscribe to a slightly different flavor of democracy. Venturing into London’s commercial center on Oxford Street, the aftermath of a protest come into sight; broken windows, paint bombs, and riot police on the watch for attacks on retail and luxury stores:

— a post-protest party on the street with pirate flags and happy singing folk around a bonfire, lightly observed by police in the area who don’t appear to have problems with the revelry:

— in the morning, signs of the previous night’s paint bomb assault on the Olympic countdown clock at Trafalgar Square:

The Museum of London subsequently announced an initiative to gather protest placards as part of the museum’s collection, in an effort “to give demonstrators the chance to influence how history remembers them”, sans the disruptions of the protest’s subverting anarchists.

All this certainly could not possibly take place outside free, democratic sociopolitcal constructs — but as a recent blogger’s infographic reminds us, states can be inconsistent: freedom in the offline world doesn’t always translate to the online world in the same way with its accelerated means of disseminating information — fact, fiction, myth, and the everything in between.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan, infographic by http://yuxiyou.net/open/

A Tokyo sunrise, in photos, a story of changing light and color on a city.

Taken within the course of two hours in January 2011 from a hotel room in Roppongi Hills.

Tags: tokyo Tokyo

A Moment of Reflection: Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Mar 12, 2011

Those of us on Pacific Time yesterday morning woke to the news of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan, followed by a tsunami that struck the eastern coast of the country. The scale of devastation meted out across cities and villages in affected areas is absolutely staggering, as conveyed by videos and images from the air and ground. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes movingly about the resilience of the Japanese people, or gaman — “a courage, unity, and common purpose” that he had first witnessed after the Kobe quake. I’m reminded of Shigeru Ban’s pioneering work with paper emergency architecture, used after the Kobe quake to build a church and subsequently donated to Taiwan to respond to a 1999 quake there. Thinking back on past trips to Tokyo, I had noticed that every taxi was outfitted with GPS devices that guided drivers through the city. If this GPS data were layered with real-time information such as expected building occupancy given the time of a quake and an index for severity of impact, these fleets of taxis could conceivably be turned into crisis response vehicles, navigating through rubble and a significantly transformed urban landscape via GPS, and equipped with logistical data to aid rescue operations. Our hearts and thoughts go out to Japan and her people as they weather the coming days. For those looking for resources and more information, one online tool available is Google.org’s Crisis Response page

Credits: Video from Reuters.com, infographic from Nytimes.com, photo by Min Li Chan.

One-Minute Commentary: Fast Company vs. The New Yorker on Protest and Urban Planning

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Feb 24, 2011

In a recent Polis blogpost, two guest bloggers opining on the Egyptian protests and role of the city in rebellion noted that “[t]he past few days have not been determined solely by the Army and the Police, Hosni Mubarak or the Protests, Media or Rumors, Pamphlets or Twitter, Facebook or SMS, but instead by the meeting of feet with boulevards, the intersection of Internet access and privilege and the fusion of history with rubber-coated steel bullets.” Reflecting on the monumental meeting of feet with boulevards in Cairo’s Tahrir Square a few weeks later, reportage on Fast Company and The New Yorker offer their respective viewpoints, in unwitting counter-dialog with each other. The article in Fast Company contends:

Urban planners can help promote a healthier democracy by designing spaces that allow for equal public access, including for journalists. Less pressing is the need to make them beautiful.
"As the recent events in Cairo suggest, a protest space doesn’t have to be nice or well-designed," [architect] Hatuka says. "A large-scale protest like this has shown that people will just hijack the streets and the roads."

In comparison, The New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson writes:

I saw one man carrying a black garbage bag with a sign across his chest: “Yesterday I was a demonstrator. Today I build Egypt.” I met a couple of young students from the American University in Cairo, carrying brooms. One said that she had been discussing this new community spirit with her father. “We thought people didn’t care,” she said, “and just threw their garbage on the street, but now we see that they just thought it was hopeless—why bother when it’s so dirty. Why not be corrupt when everything is corrupted. But now things have changed, and it’s a different mood overtaking. Even I can’t stop smiling myself.”

Fast Company and Hatuka seem to have missed the point in their interpretation of the monumental events that took place in Tahrir Square. Far from showing that urban spaces don’t need to be beautiful or “nice” for displays of democracy to flourish, the state of Tahrir Square in its erstwhile squalor and disrepair is really a result of the populace’s eroding faith in the system. It is the product of the lack of democracy in the first place — and thus a growing sense of apathy and hopelessness among the people.

If what designers take away from the story of Tahrir Square is that “a protest space doesn’t need to be nice or well-designed”, then they would be no better than the misguided powers-that-be who couldn’t care less about the well being of the populace. Perhaps a truer observation is this: the way in which a community interacts with its immediate environs is a barometer of its social, economic, and political health. Public spaces in a persistent state of filth and neglect point to a systemic breakdown in public services (and with that potentially incompetence, corruption, and/or a lack of resources), a populace’s ambivalence — or worst, its chronic state of unhappiness. (“Why not be corrupt when everything is corrupted?”). 

Credits: Photo by Danya Al-Saleh and Mohammed Rafi Arefin from their Polis guest blogpost.

Designing Consumer Experiences: What Can Industrialized Countries Learn from Emerging Economies?

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Feb 8, 2011

Some time in the thick of winter last December, I stopped by a supermarket located in a low-income neighborhood in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. The visit was motivated by a desire to understand a typical urban consumer’s experience on the path to purchase and consumption. Winter aside, this particular supermarket felt heavy with an air of malaise and neglect, but most strikingly, it was bereft of the usual embellishments one would expect from in-store advertising — no brightly colored discount stickers or islands of product in the aisles. There were simply rows upon rows of product and prices on business card-sized paper, all situated somewhere between haphazard and order. Implicit within this lack of consumerist fanfare is a sinking suspicion that the creators of this shopping environment had deemed their low-income customers not worth advertising to, or even lifting a finger for.

This rather bleak experience sparked a thought:  if most of us go through life spending a considerable amount of time in places of purchase and consumption (be it the city supermarket or the local fast food joint), then surely a lifetime of frequenting these consumer spaces has some meaningful impact on one’s outlook on life. For the brand marketer whose job is to design consumer spaces for the dollar-store clientele, it stops becoming a question of, “why bother with in-store advertising if the only thing my customer cares about is a low price tag?” Rather, the question becomes, “can a consumer space impact the sense of self-worth and aspiration for the community that it serves — and what are we to do about this?”

In contrast to my experience in Cincinnati, I encountered a brightly decked grocery shop, replete with natural light and entirely pleasant by way of shopping experience — while in a lower-income neighborhood in Jakarta, Indonesia. (When translated, the shop name “ceriamart” approximates to “cheery market”):

Nearby, a mom-and-pop shop didn’t quite have the same embellishments, but the shop’s orientation puts customer service at the front and center of the consumer experience:

The shop adjoined to a gas station in Kuala Lumpur took the trouble to adopt Ikea-esque information design:

Having experienced the harshly lit desolation of Walmarts at the outskirts of several major cities in the United States, I found it surprisingly uplifting to walk into a gaily lit, bountiful Walmart in the city of Shenzhen, China. One could argue a similar comparison for the McDonalds fast food joint in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, when contrasted with the McDonalds in downtown San Francisco. Granted, brands that traditionally cater to lower income communities in the U.S. tend to position themselves with the rising middle class when exported to emerging economies.

So what can we learn from this exercise in comparing urban consumer experiences in emerging countries, vis-a-vis that of industrialized countries? Perhaps the difference between consumer experiences in emerging and industrialized countries can be summed up as the difference between optimism and cynicism; aspiration and angst. For many emerging economies pulling out of the backwaters and into a burgeoning middle class, hope and optimism abounds — and so does the sense of striving towards a better life. For more developed economies that have seen the failure of institutions over and over again, its players are more cynical, jaded, ambivalent. These disparate perspectives are reflected in the way both customers and corporations embrace consumer culture.

In his article, Design and Human Behavior: The Sociology of Architecture, William Du Bois contends:

Every decision on design has consequences for behavior. Each is an opportunity to influence interaction. We can either allow those consequences to happen by chance, or consciously design for human interaction. We can gear every design decision to how it will influence human actors. 

Should we thus hold designers, brand marketers, retailers and restaurateurs to a moral obligation to consider how consumer spaces affect a sense of dignity and self-worth? Is there a way for the industrialized and jaded to break out of the vicious cycle of cynicism and return to a state of optimism — or more cogently, simply demand more from those who design our spaces and interactions? And at the end of the day, can we materially measure the social and economic upside of investing more time and effort in designing good consumer environments?

To sketch out a possible experiment to begin with: for a particular underserved urban neighborhood, start by putting in the effort and thought into redesigning its high-traffic consumer touchpoints (the McDonalds and Family Dollars in the neighborhood) in the way that we would for the Macys and Nieman Marcuses of the world, run this experiment against a control over a period of several years, and observe any overall qualitative or quantitative impact on the community against a set of socioeconomic measures. The devil is certainly in the details, but I’d love to hear more erudite thoughts than mine on this — for what it’s worth, it would all be in the service of eliminating those grocery aisles of dread, malaise and neglect. 

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Heritage Buildings in the Modern Emerging City

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Dec 29, 2010

Many years ago, a professor from Hong Kong University sitting beside me on a plane remarked that “Hong Kong is like a city without memory”, its skyline replete with modern skyscrapers and a rich, complex history reflected through only a handful of ancestral villages in the northern territories or occasional rows of shophouses in older districts like Sheung Wan. The professor commended two cities in my home country of Malaysia — Kuala Lumpur and Penang — for their effort in preserving heritage buildings, albeit constantly negotiating the swinging pendulum of modernization with its local and global politics.

The business of heritage buildings (for it would be naive to overlook the economic value behind the intangible benefits of historical preservation) is a tricky one. For countries keen to propel themselves beyond the developing status (or negara membangun, as referred to in Malay), there is the irresistible, controversial, and many argue, misguided, notion that participating in a giddily modernist glass-and-steel extravaganza and an arms race of who-has-the-tallest-building are essential for a country’s economic and political cache in the world (and countries like Malaysia often find themselves caught in these crossroads). In the same breath, we may well be overlooking some of a nation’s most obvious and accessible infrastructural resources in economic development: its historical buildings. There’s a lot you can do with carefully preserved heritage buildings (if not salvageable in entirety, then their facades) as genuinely compelling tourist attractions aesthetically and intellectually, and great consumer/commercial spaces that don’t require wanton reinvention After all, would you rather be shopping in a soulless postmodern box or a pretty cool piece of national history that’s more than five decades old?

Looking back as we move forward into the new year, here’s a small sample of several historical or locally attuned buildings around Penang and Kuala Lumpur:

Credits: Photos from Min Li Chan.

Typography in the City

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Dec 2, 2010

Whilst walking down a street in New York this past week, I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of typography in signage within a few blocks of each other — the fonts used carefully deliberated and calibrated for their use case and what they aim to convey. Here’s a quick sampling:

A serif font, giving a sense of authority and gravitas to a street sign. The method of engraving the street names into a distinct corner-cut concrete block also seems like hugely useful idea: In dim lighting, I won’t have to squint my eyes and randomly scan the airspace for street signage (especially if I were a lost tourist). And it’s interesting to consider engraving the street names in braille on a concrete block at arm-level to make them more accessible to the blind.

A bold but lean sans serif font on the shop front of a judo club, accompanied by what looks like hand-illustrated judo maneuvers. The combination invokes a sense of the (hand-drawn) old-school while signaling a  contemporary relevance (as sans serif fonts are wont to do).

Yet another instance of sans serif, with thoughtful letter spacing between characters that makes a long string like “cleaners-launderers” extremely easy to scan even if you’re running by with blaring earphones and a singularity of focus through the biting cold.

Lastly, a bit of whimsy with a hieroglyphic, Mesopotamic quality — perhaps a touch of self-expression and creativity of the unit’s inhabitants. 

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Mobile Phones, India, and Life in the City

Originally posted on thepolisblog.org on Nov 3, 2010

Among cynical technologists, the tale of explosive mobile phone usage in hypergrowth countries like India is two decades of waxing lyrical with little grasp on reality. On one hand, there’s the oft-told story of the fisherman checking for prices at the neighboring city’s markets, the Grameen phone, and the 15 million new mobile subscribers per month. On the other, the unspoken trappings of the latest mobile phones as a status symbol, the stymied growth of smart phones without the infrastructural support and economic gumption of telecoms providers, and the simple fact that all this reported growth is overhyped when living in the urban rough and tumble means getting your phone stolen — frequently. Thomas Friedman’s op-ed in the New York Times beckons us to believe the hype: and with a compelling anecdote to back it up:

Here’s an example of why I ask these questions. It’s a typical Indian start-up I visited in a garage in South Delhi, EKO India Financial Services. Its founders, Abhishek Sinha and his brother Abhinav, began with a small insight — that low-wage Indian migrant workers flocking to Delhi from poorer states like Bihar had no place to put their savings and no secure way to send money home to their families. India has relatively few bank branches for a country its size, so many migrants stuff money in their mattresses or send cash home through traditional “hawala,” or hand-to-hand networks.
The brothers had an idea. In every Indian neighborhood or village there’s usually a mom-and-pop kiosk that sells drinks, cigarettes, candy and a few groceries. Why not turn each one into a virtual bank? So they created a software program whereby a migrant worker in Delhi using his cellphone, and proof of identity, could open a bank account registered on his cellphone text system. Mom-and-pop shopkeepers would act as the friendly neighborhood local banker and do the same.
Then the worker in New Delhi could give a kiosk owner in his slum 1,000 rupees (about $20), the shopkeeper would record it on his phone and text receipt of the deposit to the system’s mother bank, the State Bank of India. Then the worker’s wife back in Bihar could just go to the mom-and-pop kiosk in her village, also tied into the system, and make a withdrawal using her cellphone. The shopkeeper there would give her the 1,000 rupees sent by her husband. Each shopkeeper would earn a small fee from each transaction. Besides money transfers, workers could also use the system to bank their savings. 

Friedman argues that entrepreneurs in emerging countries like India are finding innovative ways to create services for the country’s majority population — a population that hadn’t been traditionally considered an economically viable customer base. The simple, basic mobile phone plays the role of the great equalizer — a platform upon which these services can be delivered. How does this relate to life in the polis? We cannot speak of life in the city without talking about life in the country, the “fringes”, the migration urbanward for economic opportunity. Like roads and highways or train tracks, mobile phone networks form a basic infrastructure that emotionally — and economically, in the case of Friedman’s example — connects new city dwellers to their hometowns. They form a lifeline between the privileges and pitfalls of the city, and the survival of the towns and villages they left behind. If taxis can provide a portrait of a city’s economic and social life , and the proliferation of smartphones provides ubiquitous sources of all kinds of datasets, I wonder how the basic mobile phone will one day, with its future use cases and services, give us more insight into a day in the life of a citizen in the majority world. 

Credits: Photo from janchipchase.com

Tags: india mobile

Runners, Running and Mutual Aid (Even in the Harsh City)

Originally written for the thepolisblog.org on Oct 23, 2010

Runners in cities are a ubiquitous phenomenon — be it in the vastness of Beijing shrouded by the early morning rush-hour smog, on the streets of Paris by the Seine, or in the fish-tank gyms of New York. Ivo Gormley of the design consultancy ThinkPublic started with a dislike for the model of the contemporary gym — too wasteful for the yearly subscriptions that we fail to honor, and fundamentally an isolating endeavor that he believes doesn’t lend itself to opportunities for mutual aid. In scenarios of mutual aid, segments of humanity that may otherwise never intersect can forge relationships and help each other out. The arrangement rarely inconveniences the helper, as the assistance is often easily incorporated into the existing flow (so there isn’t the added friction of inefficiency). Gormley then started an experiment known as The Good Gym:

The Good Gym pairs runners with isolated less-mobile people in their area. Runners jog to their house, deliver something nice, have a brief chat and are on their way again.
It helps people get fit by providing a good reason to go for a run and it helps the person being visited by providing them with some friendly human contact and a newspaper or piece of fruit.
(abstracted from www.thegoodgym.org

The Good Gym operates on the principle that if you’re held accountable to someone else’s happiness, you’d be better at keeping commitments to yourself (“I want to run and be healthy…and there’s someone who’s expecting me at the end of the wretched 12-miles”). Imagine if participating runners in The Good Gym were responsible for deeper tasks beyond delivering the paper, such as helping deliver insulin injections to older citizens in their community. At the moment, the Good Gym is operating only in Tower Hamlets, London — but just a little bit of a global groundswell could scale a social innovation like this to other cities. Gormley believes that there are ways to design formats for mutual aid into contemporary life, particularly in cities. Some examples he cites include couchsurfing, pervasive gaming in cities, and community-based tools on the Internet (think Craigslist). Here’s Gormley on mutual aid at the Lift conference this past summer in Marseille:

Credits: Photo from thegoodgym.org, video from dailymotion.com

The (Un)usual Suspects: Micro-societies Around Two Museums

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Oct 6, 2010

I cannot help but be intrigued and somewhat bewildered by the confluence of communities around the neighboring museums of Palais de Tokyo and Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Go around the front and you’ll see the twin signs and their distinguishing choices of materials and typographies, married by virtue of their shared location but separate in their respective artistic charters and operations: But approach it from the back and you’re greeted by a popular skateboard convention where boys on skateboards, graffiti and sculpture intersect — the only explanation offered by a neon sign declaring “Respublica" (the common wealth, the republic, or most literally meaning ‘a public matter’), hovering over the skateboarding communion:

Venture around the side and you’ll see artist Robert Milin’s Le Jardin Aux Habitants (The Inhabitant’s Garden), where Milin granted plots of land to amateur gardeners to fashion in their own aesthetic and personality:

If you’re sufficiently curious to sneak upstairs past the visitor barricade at the Palais, you’ll encounter a sanctuary on the roof — a pavilion designed as a meeting and collaborative incubation space for a micro-society of artists and designers. As French painter, filmmaker and photographer Ange Lecia describes it (translated from French):

So the special feature of the Pavillon is that it offers young artists and curators collaborative projects. One of the objectives of this laboratory is the establishment of a group that is encouraged to work together during its residency. But inside that micro-society, each individual goes his/her own way. Therefore the challenge is for the various personalities who have been brought together to understand one another in the context of a joint project. From this point of view the Pavillon is a utopia. Sometimes a utopia that offers a rough ride, but one that has the merit of confronting the reality of what defines a community : the tensions and misunderstandings, as well as the affinities and collusions. In spite of these difficulties, the Pavillon is a place that believes life’s richness lies more than ever in its diversity.

The artists’ rooftop pavilion:

There’s a paradox of both the collective and the individual inherent to these three intersecting micro-communities: the strength in numbers in a group of skateboarders, engaged in what is a very individually styled art of doing tricks on a two-wheeled board; the commune of amateur gardeners asked to fashion a plot of land in their own individual choosing; the collaborative charter of artists-in-residence at the pavilion where each is nonetheless also inspired to go his or her own way. (Then there’s the unmentioned community of tourists and visitors such as myself, watching quietly as all this unfolds). Perhaps the common thread that binds these three disparate communities is a sense of pride in one’s craft, be it the consummate skill and derring-do of a skateboarder, the passion of an amateur gardener, or the work of a professional artist. A lovely expression in Japanese embodies all this: shokunin kishitsu or the craftman’s spirit, appealing to all of us, regardless of vocation, to aspire to beauty in everything we do and create. 

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan.

Interlude: Phone Cards at the Cornershop

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Sept 9, 2010

For the curious urban anthropologist landing in a metropolis for the first time, international phone card advertisements can provide a window into migrant communities and multicultural makeup of a city. While phone card services have been traditionally targeted to particular socioeconomic brackets, the flourishing of Internet-based telephony — think Skype, Google Voice and such — intersecting with greater access to the web means that the demographics of inexpensive phone calls overseas is one that is perhaps less skewed. All this is further convoluted by easy access to prepaid mobile phones for local calls. And perhaps, when going forward generationally and considering the strong diaspora connections in particular online social networks — such as orkut in Brazil and India, or Friendster and Southeast Asia — these dynamics are more hidden in bits and bytes than they are surfaced in the cornershop of a city. (Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research mentions a few interesting observations regarding the social division between orkut and Facebook in Brazil, quoting Pedro Augusto at the Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade in Rio). 

Credits: Photo from Min Li Chan, taken outside a shop in Marseille, France

The Wilderness Downtown: Nostalgia in the Modern Web Browser

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Aug 31, 2010

I’ve had the good fortune of being a part of an unusual and innovative project led by visualization maestro Aaron Koblin from the Google Creative Lab and writer/director Chris Milk with the band Arcade Fire. Called “The Wilderness Downtown”, the project crafts a unique and deeply personal experience for each viewer as you virtually run down the streets where you used to live. (All this is set to Arcade Fire’s new song “We Used to Wait” off their newly released album “The Suburbs” — the song evokes a nostalgic atmosphere that is fitting of the experience).

The premise of this project is predicated on the realization that truly profound experiences with media (think: the last movie or music video you cried at) can become more emotionally powerful in the era of modern web technologies — you no longer consume the same piece of media that a few million others do, but instead experience something that is entirely tailored to you. On the backend of ”The Wilderness Downtown”, the team used HTML5 technologies mashed up with the Google Maps API including Streetview to deliver that personalized experience. Wired Magazine runs an insightful article of what modern web technologies and browsers bring to experiences like this one, and possibilities for the future. In the context of cities, experiences like “The Wilderness Downtown” provoke us to approach the very cities we live in (or used to) — ones we may be inured to — with fresh eyes. What would it be like to take on a swooping bird’s eye view into the rooftops of buildings that we’re familiar with but don’t recognize from a satellite perspective? Have you stopped in the middle of a weary thoroughfare to take a look around and immortalize this very street in memory? To launch the experience, check out www.thewildernessdowntown.com. (For the best viewing experience given extensive use of HTML5 technologies, you’ll need to view it in the browser Google Chrome or a fully HTML5-compliant browser). And if you’d like to learn more about how it was made, go to www.chromeexperiments.com/arcadefire.  

Credits: Images from the Official Google Blog, Google LatLong Blog, and Google Chrome Blog Full disclosure: I currently work for the Google Chrome team

From Kodak to the Mobile Phone: Urban Data and the Scientific Life

Originally written for thepolisblog.org on Aug 12, 2010

We appear to be living in a renaissance of data — large datasets, to be more precise — as the new purveyors of insight into the social, economic, and political lives of cities. Portable devices such as GPS and mobile phones which we carry with us passively emit signals as we go about our day, and these signals in aggregate ultimately map the ebbs and flows of urban life (as evidenced by much of the work from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab. One such example runs along the lines of a time-lapse, geographically oriented visualization of text message density across a particular set of cities). The trends and conclusions from all this data can, at best, spur local governments to reshape urban strategies — be it for traffic and crowd congestion control, public transportation policies, or even understanding the potential transmission paths of local epidemics. In the age of aggregate datasets, I cannot help but recall the concept of the “photovoice”: a method of data collection through systematic photography and the use of images as evidence. The output from a photovoice approach yields data, certainly, but it is data that is often richer and more nuanced with its ethnographic content — data which is arguably not as immediately straightforward and processable as mobile phone signals. When the Kodak — the first simple camera — was invented, George Eastman articulated his vision in The Kodak Primer:

”[…] We furnish anybody, man, woman or child, who has sufficient intelligence to point a box straight and press a button, with an instrument which altogether removes from the practice of photography the necessity for exceptional facilities, or, in fact, any special knowledge of the art.” 

The proliferation of cameras 122 years later on mobile phones further dismantles the barriers to practising photography, but while we may be somewhat liberated from the shackles of a specialized artform, the ultra-accessibility of the camera beckons us to approach life — or more specifically, documenting life — in a more deliberate, scientific way. This could conceivably mean having photo albums not just of smiling babies and family members, but of public toilets and recycling amenities in our neighborhood, or of homelessness on our streets. In doing so, we’d be generating a meaningful corpus of photographic data about our urban environments in their painstaking logistics and heart-rending problems, and hopefully contributing to our collective well-being from the actions that issue directly from this data. The idea of being more scientific in our approach to life and documenting life with tools like the ubiquitous camera has been suggested by researchers like Dr. Deborah Estrin at UCLA’s Center for Embedded Network Sensing, and deserves some thought. Coupled with geolocation technologies and other metadata, the proliferation of photos on online social networks and photo albums today would paint a compelling snapshot of our urban livelihoods and provide more texture and grist to the binary datasets of bits and bytes that we passively generate on a daily basis.

Credits: Photo of Marseille by Min Li Chan.