This is the second of three blog posts of the series ‘Designing the city by numbers? Bottom-up initiatives for data-driven urbanism in Santiago de Chile’, by Martín Tironi and Matías Valderrama Barragán. Find the first post here. Stay tuned: the next episode will appear next Friday, May 4th!
Over the past two years, we have been studying cases that specifically involve digital quantification and urban cycling in the city of Santiago. Because of the multiple benefits to the environment, urban congestion, and citizens’ health, urban cycling has been characterized as a “green” and “sustainable” form of mobility, highly attractive for smart cities initiatives. Under this trend, various digital devices and self-tracking apps have been developed for quantifying and expand urban cycling. The numbers and data generated by such an array of technologies have more recently been reframed as valuable crowdsourced information to inform and guide decisions on urban planning and promoting citizen demands. In this sense, data-driven initiatives seem to promote a spirit where citizens themselves appear as the central actors of urban planning thanks to the development of these civic technologies. In contrast, we explore why we should remain sceptical of how such data-driven initiatives adopt what can appear to be bottom-up approaches. We should remain critically vigilant of how such moves can be used to promote market-driven technological adoption and low-efforts forms of citizenship instead.
RUBI: Let the bikes speak for themselves
Our first example is the case of RUBI, Urban Bike Tracker device in Spanish, which we examined more in detail in a recently published paper in the journal Environment and Planning D. This device records the routes taken by cyclists anonymously in a georeferenced database that is later processed on a web platform (RubiApp) to obtain numbers, metrics and visualizations of the users. It was developed in 2014 by a young engineering student as his undergraduate thesis. At that time, he started a bottom-up project called Stgo2020, in order to invite cyclists of Santiago to voluntarily participate in the collection of data about their everyday trips, and with that, challenging the status quo in urban planning and allowing cyclists to act as “co-designers” of their own city. The project achieved the collection of data from a hundred volunteer cyclists, generating graphics, tables and heat maps about urban cycling. This information was shared later with the Transportation Office hoping that it would help to make data-driven decisions about future cycling lanes -but he never knew if the data was used in some way.
Because of the academic origin of RUBI, the entire development of the device was based on a strongly scientific narrative on how to achieve a “representative” and “clean” sample of cyclists’ mobility. So, the developer decided to design a hardware that could be differentiated from apps like STRAVA and wearables technologies that would depend on expensive technologies and data plan, presenting strong biases in his opinion. This scientific narrative marked the whole design and materiality of the RUBI. The first prototypes were large, fragile and very much dependent on the human user in several respects. In fact, the engineer behind the device playfully drew a human face on the first prototype. But several problems emerged with these first versions. For example, users continually forgot to turn it on or off when necessary, some users subvert and appropriate the functioning of the technology in unexpected ways, and particular problems emerged from the GPS of the device itself. These emerging breakdowns from the everyday entanglement of cyclists, devices, bicycles and urban spaces, produced “erroneous”, “stupid” or “absurd” data for the engineer, that we call it as “idiotic data” in our paper based on Isabelle Stengers conceptual character of the idiot, which slow down and put in question the “clean” collection of data intended for the project. To confront the emergence of idiotic data, new sensors, algorithms and automated functions were aggregated to give the device a greater “smartness” to operate as an autonomous and independent entity, outside of human control. In the process, the device shift to a literal “black box” ensuring little interaction with the cyclists and the environment as possible, and as a result, the practice of quantifying the urban cycling become more unnoticed and effortless for cyclists.
During 2016, the RUBI device scaled up to other cities using new business models, losing its bottom-up nature. The company RubiCo was created and reached agreements with local governments and international consulting agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank, to map the use of public bicycle rental systems -even without the notice of users in some cases. Giving the device “true intelligence” was not only a precautionary “solution” to idiotic data, but it was mobilized to add value and solidity to the regime compared to the competition. In contrast to other self-tracking technologies (apps, wearables, etc.), RubiCo focuses on control the biases and noise of the sample on cyclists’ mobility, constituting RUBI interaction with the bike as an authentic “moving laboratory” that captures georeferenced data precisely and objectively, using the words of RUBI’s developer.
Stay tuned for the final posts in this series for more on the development of the KAPPO pro-cycling smartphone game and its outcomes in Santiago.
1. This text is based on a presentation at the Workshop “Designing people by numbers” held in Pontificia Universidad Católica in November 2017, with the participation of Celia Lury
About the authors
Martín Tironi is Associate Professor, School of Design at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He holds a PhD from Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (CSI), École des Mines de Paris, where he also did post-doctorate studies. He received his Master degree in Sociology at the Université Paris Sorbonne V and his BA in Sociology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Now he’s doing a visiting Fellow (2018) in Centre of Invention and Social Proces, Goldsmiths, University of London [email: email@example.com]
Matías Valderrama Barragán is a sociologist with a Master in Sociology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He is currently working in research projects about digital transformation of organizations and datafication of individuals and environments in Chile. [email:firstname.lastname@example.org]