Do we need open source streets?

There is a marvelous essay by Dan Hill in the City of Sound blog.

It reveals how our physical environment is already being enriched by an extraordinary amount of invisible data, and what this may mean for sociability in the near future.

Here’s the start of the article, to give you a taste:

The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Imagine film of a normal street right now, a relatively busy crossroads at 9AM taken from a vantage point high above the street, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera. We can see several buildings, a dozen cars, and quite a few people, pavements dotted with street furniture.

Freeze the frame, and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what can’t we see?

We can’t see how the street is immersed in a twitching, pulsing cloud of data. This is over and above the well-established electromagnetic radiation, crackles of static, radio waves conveying radio and television broadcasts in digital and analogue forms, police voice traffic. This is a new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street.”

After a long meditation on actual and potential applications, Dan Hill then asks whether the signage applications should be open or closed?

Dan Hill:

Interestingly, the equivalent of road signage Рsay, digital displays of civic information Рmight be best served not through an open platform. As traffic signs and markings in the UK comply with the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (TSRGD), it raises the fundamental question of whether a digital equivalent for civic/public data needs to exist. The flexibility of representation in the digital realm Рknown on the web as separating content from presentation Рmeans that numerous possibilities exist for displaying data. But should public/civic data have its own hallmark of quality, and undergo the kind of stringent analysis and compliance that physical signage has? A Kinneir and Calvert design for displaying public data? Or should the flexibility of the medium enable data to float freely across numerous platforms and modes, enabling different presentation across in-car head-up displays, mobile phone screens, physical displays as per the wind turbines above, fa̤ades on municipal buildings and so on. Could we do both?

In a sense, the entire street itself can now be thought of as having an API, conveying its overall behaviour to the world, each aspect of it increasingly beginning to generate and recombine data.

From a governance perspective, all this real-time data should be invaluable to those whose job it is to maintain and develop the street – forming a kind of post-occupancy evaluation for the entire neighbourhood – but if the same data were made open, accessible and approachable (anonymised appropriately) the community that uses the street could end up feeling far more engaged in their environment. The patterns of use in their data become as self-evident as that shortcut worn through the grass in front of the library.

If they can add further detail to this environment, using the street as a platform, all the better.”

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