[blog 1/3] Designing the city by numbers? Introduction: Hope for the data-driven city

This is the first 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. Stay tuned: the next episode will appear next Friday, April 27!

The digital has invaded contemporary cities in Latin America, transforming ways of knowing, planning and governing urban life. Parallel to the spread of sensors, networks and digital devices of all kinds in cities in the Global North, they are increasingly becoming part of urban landscapes in cities in the Global South under Smart City initiatives. Because of this, vast quantities of digital data are produced in increasingly ubiquitous and invisible ways. The “datafication” or the growing translation of multiple phenomena into the format of computable data have been pronounced by various scholars in the North as propelling a revolution or large-scale epochal change in contemporary life (Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, 2013; Kitchin, 2014) in which digital devices and the data collection would allow better self-knowledge and “smarter” decision-making across varied domains.

To examine the impacts of such hyped expectations and promises in Chile, from the Smart Citizen Project we have been studying different cases of Smart City and data-driven initiatives, focusing on how the idea of designing the city by digital numbers has permeated local governments in Santiago de Chile. Public officials and urban planners are being increasingly convinced that planning and governance will be better by quantifying urban variables and promoting decision making not only guided or informed but driven by digital data, algorithms and automated analytics -instead of prejudices, emotions or ideologies. In this “dataism” (van Dijck, 2014), it is believed that the data simply “speak for themselves” in a fantasy of immediacy and neutrality.

But perhaps the most innovative part of data-driven Smart City initiatives we’ve observed are the means by which they also promise to open a new era of experimentationand testing for citizen participation, amplifying notions like of ‘urban laboratory,’ ‘living lab,’ ‘pilot projects,’ ‘open innovation,’ and so on. Thanks to digital technologies, the assumption goes, a “democratization of policymaking” that might reduce the state’s monopoly on government decision-making (Esty, 2004; Esty & Rushing, 2007) might at last be realized, producing a greater “symmetry” or “horizontalization” between governors and the governed (Crawford & Goldsmith, 2014). This, however, depends on citizens’ willingness to function as sensors of their own cities, generating and “sharing” relevant and real-time geographic information about their behaviours and needs, which would be used by urban planners and public officials for their decisions (Goldsmith & Crawford, 2014; Goodchild, 2007).

Our work from the Smart Citizen Project at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chileunderscores the importance of nottaking as given any sort of homogeneous or universal “datafication” process and problematize how data-driven and smart governance are enacted –not without problems and breakdowns- in each location. Thus this series of three blog posts stresses how we must start instead by considering how multiple quantification practices are running at the same time, and how each one can present multiple purposes and meanings which can only be addressed on the basis of their heterogeneous contexts of materialization. Moreover, we explore how we are witnessing an increased diversity of what we call as “digital quantification regimes” produced from the South that aim to position themselves above existing technologies of the North in the market, and achieve an agreement that their data records are the most “participatory”, “representative”, or “accurate” bases for decision-making. Therefore, we must begin to explore the various suppositions, designs, political rationalities and scripts that these regimes establish in their diverse spheres of action under such growing “citizen” driven data initiatives in the South. What kind of practice-ontologies (Gabrys, 2016) might be produced through “citizen” driven data initiatives? At the same time, we believe that the “experimental” and “citizen” grammar that is increasingly infused into Smart City and data-driven initiatives in the South must be critically examined both in their actual development and forms of involvement. How the experimental grammar of smart projects is reconfiguring the idea of participation and government in the urban space?

So stay tuned for the next posts in this series for more on RUBI Urban bike tracker project and the KAPPO pro-cycling smart phone game in Santiago.


Cited works

Esty, D. C. & Rushing, R. (2007). Governing by the Numbers: The Promise of Data-Driven Policymaking in the Information Age. Center for American Progress,5, 21.

Gabrys, J. “Citizen Sensing: Recasting Digital Ontologies through Proliferating Practices.”Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, March 24, 2016.

Espeland, W. N., & Stevens, M. L. (2008). A sociology of quantification. European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 49(3), 401-436.

Esty, D. C. & Rushing, R. (2007). Governing by the Numbers: The Promise of Data-Driven Policymaking in the Information Age. Center for American Progress, 5, 21.

Goldsmith, S. & Crawford, S. (2014). The responsive city: engaging communities through data-smart governance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

Goodchild, M. F. (2007). Citizens as sensors: The world of volunteered geography.GeoJournal, 69(4), 211-221.

Kitchin, R. (2014). The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences.London: Sage.

Mayer-Schönberger, V. and Cuckier, K. (2013).  Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

van Dijck, J. (2014). Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and secular belief. Surveillance & Society, 12(2), 197-208.


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:]

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. []