The Economist roundup: 6 degree, driverless cars, privacy, london, radio ga ga

August 31st, 2012

Six degrees of mobilisation. Technology and society: To what extent can social networking make it easier to find people and solve real-world problems?

Look, no hands. Automotive technology: Driverless cars promise to reduce road accidents, ease congestion and revolutionise transport… Assuming that autonomous vehicles make journeys quicker and use road space more efficiently, how should planners exploit the benefits of automation? On the one hand it would allow cities to get bigger, by reducing the time and stress associated with commuting. On the other, it could allow cities to become denser, by reducing the amount

of space that needs to be dedicated to roads and parking. Alternatively, space allocated to roads in city centres could be used for bike lanes or parks.

A knight in digital armour. Chris Soghoian, the most prominent of a new breed of activist technology researchers, delights in exposing security flaws and privacy violations

Personal data. Shameless self-promotion Britain wants to lead the world in exploiting consumer data…. Transactional data helps businesses make money, and the government thinks consumers should profit from it too.

Changing London.  Brixton is now a black shopping destination.

Radio Ga Ga. A small radio station in Sierra Leone offers big lessons for the UN.


Mobiles are ringing the global changes

August 12th, 2012

from FT article.

About 2.5bn people in emerging markets have mobile phones. … Consider what happened two-and-a-half years ago when the Haitian earthquake struck. …researchers at Columbia University and the Karolinska Institute took a different tack: they tracked Sim cards inside Haitians’ mobile phones. That helped them to “analyse the destination of more than 600,000 people who were displaced from Port au Prince”

Twitter and Facebook. These are strikingly popular in emerging markets; Indonesia, for example, has one of the world’s most Twitter-addicted populations. Thus a sudden increase in certain keywords can provide early warning of distress. References to food or ethnic strife may indicate incipient famine or unrest.


Well-being and the future, A starting point

July 20th, 2012

notes from a meeting at UCL (pdf)

It would be fair to say that well-being, however defined, is trending strongly. There are a number of reasons for its advancement into the foreground of policymakers attention, as well as its diffusion into wider society as a concept that is worth considering, amongst these a dissatisfaction with economic methods of measurement, cheaper and better technology allowing the processing of multiple dimensions of information, and some well established but challenging observations from the field of economics itself.

The first country to assess well-being on these lines in the context of a national economy is Bhutan, which has recently gained plaudits for developing a measure of “gross national happiness” which is based on the weighted average model. This assesses GNH as an index of 72 variables covering everything from health to the value of social relationships. It is unclear as yet how this will affect the Kingdom of Bhutan, or even whether it will cause change or inhibit it.

The broad consensus is that
• Richer countries are happier than poorer ones, at an aggregate level.
• Within richer countries, however, richer people are not significantly happier than
poorer people.
• Loss of income hurts more than a gain in income generates happiness. (People exhibit loss aversion)
• The role of expectations conditions the value gained from consuming something. So if I expected something to make

me a lot happier and it only makes me marginally happier than I was before, I will experience a degree of hurt.

Looking at inequality makes the position even more murky. Inequality, even if narrowly defined as an economic concept, is multi-dimensional. A concept of well-being as applied to the debate on inequality has the potential to create even more murk. While evidence has been adduced that more equal societies have greater levels of well-being, an equal and opposite body of evidence claims little relationship.

While we have lots of data on people?s levels of subjective, reported well-being, context is elusive. In their 2004 paper on Wellbeing and National accounts, Kahneman et al point out that many of the results that are robust, are plausible, yet puzzling. For instance, subjective well-being comparisons between Denmark and France show four times as many Danes as rating themselves ?very satisfied, as French citizens, a gap not explained by any economic data. Understanding why would be a useful thing for a policy maker to know, but at this point we have far more questions than we have answers.

impacts from redeveloping older neighborhoods

July 17th, 2012

Conversation on the SDOH mailing list

Question: Aside from gentrification I am looking for resources, studies, commentaries  on the impacts from redeveloping older neighborhoods- adding bike trails, or rail lines or TOD and how that can impact social cohesion, or set  up dangerous routes resulting from traffic diversions, construction hazards and rerouting  traditional walking paths in neighborhoods etc.

Reply 1: I wish planners would consider is the high level of pollution next to highways and busy roadways. There is too much enthusiasm for putting walking and biking paths next to heavy traffic, resulting in exposures to people using them. See a couple of our articles: 1, 2, 3

Reply 2: I would highly recommend looking at the resources at the Human Impact Project website.

Reply 3: To your point, ‘what happens going forward as income inequities increase …only those with wealth can afford to buy into those communities while those that don’t have the income and generally have worst health-have to stay in older communities’… An upcoming book “Race, class, power, and organizing in East Baltimore: rebuilding abandoned communities in America” focuses on the patterns of rebuilding in this primarily African American and working poor and low-income community with a

big emphasis on a current rebuilding project (Marisela B. Gomez, Lexington Books, November 2012). … Some of the displacement

and urban revitalization research by M Fullilove, R Wallace, A Geronimus, D Keene, D Harvey and others address your question from different lens by looking at the displaced people and the geographic inequity which results.

Urban world: cities and the rise of the consuming class

July 11th, 2012

this is the title of a recent mckinsey report. THE company built a database – called cityscope 2.0 – containing city rankings, projections of growth of urban markets, etc. from the executive summary (pdf), i learnt that

p. 6 - Exhibit E4. Consumer goods tend to follow an adoption S-curve as incomes rise. more interestingly, there are two key points: First, as incomes rise, consumers choose where they spend

the additional available income, and some products take off at lower incomes than others. Second, products and services vary in the shape of their adoption curve and then in the rate of growth of mature, well-penetrated markets.

p. 9 “To capture the significant opportunity that urbanization offers them, companies need to take a scientific approach to locating the most promising markets for their businesses. … Cities that fail to meet the aspirations of the millions who are migrating in search of better opportunities run

the risk of congestion, pollution, and insufficient public services becoming barriers to growth. “

the growth figures are impressive… how to put it? growing cities, and their rising consumer demand


demographics of mobile phone users

July 9th, 2012

Given our previous discussion, I found this bit of the article “Data Mining meets City Hall” funny:

“There’s sometimes the perception that if you do a mobile app, you’re hitting the wealthier members of the community,” says Code for America’s Pahlka. “But mobile is an incredibly important strategy if you’re looking at low-income communities.”

Pahlka cites a study by New York City’s Department of Social Services, which found that more than 80% of the people who visited its facilities were regular cellphone users, and that 35% of them owned smartphones. SMS-based apps are another way to broaden accessibility and adoption as are targeted outreach campaigns. “It’s not about a broad advertising campaign for users that are already in the know,” says Pahlka. “It’s about partnering with cities to reach the people who need these services. If you’re targeting users of social services, advertise to them in the department during the transactions.”

identify city hotspots from flickr pix

July 9th, 2012

I enjoyed this  review article on using flickr pics to identify hotspots in different cities – e.g., london, paris, boston.

Starting with a blank slate, we plotted the raw photo geotags to produce the map in the background and then applied mean-shift clustering to locate the 30 most photographed cities on earth. For each of those cities, we extracted the city’s name by looking for distinctive text tags and found the name of the most photographed landmark within the city. Then we extracted a representative image for that landmark. While the analysis is not perfect—a human would have chosen a more appropriate image of Phoenix than a bird on a baseball field, for example—the result is a compelling summary of North America, produced automatically by analyzing the activity of millions of Flickr users. Maps for other continents, regions, and cities

of the world are available at our project Web site

This analysis is reminiscent of sociologist Stanley Milgram’s work during the 1970s studying people’s “psychological maps”—their mental images of how the physical world is laid out.17 He asked Parisians to draw freehand maps of their city and then compared these maps with the factual geography. Milgram found that the maps were highly variable and largely inaccurate but that most people tended to anchor their maps around a few key landmarks such as the River Seine and Notre Dame Cathedral. He ranked landmarks by their degree of importance in the

collective Parisian psychology by counting the number of times that each landmark was mentioned in the study. Our work is an analogous study, at a much larger scale. It is important to note that we are also dealing with much less controlled data, however, and our results are biased by the demographics of Flickr users.

The world of smart cities apps

June 29th, 2012

Roadify - Roadify takes transit schedules, service alerts, delays and other official data and adds a layer of crowdsourced commentary about local transit conditions from riders. We supplement these rider comments with Tweets and other proprietary data, providing Roadify with the most accurate service conditions available anywhere. If something is wrong with your commute, you’ll know about it first or have the opportunity to ensure other riders do.

Broadcastr - Broadcastr creates intimate and immersive experiences by

unlocking pictures and audio relevant to where you are. It turns your smartphone into a multimedia guide to the world, and everyone can contribute. [...] Take a walk while stories about your surroundings stream automatically to your phone. A celebrity chef whispers in your ear as you stroll past his favorite restaurant; a renowned architect guides you through lower Manhattan; a comedian shares a hilarious personal anecdote at her favorite bar. Your movement through the world becomes your search query. Download the app. Take a walk.

Change by Us - New Yorkers have always been full of great ideas about what will improve their neighborhoods. Use Change by Us NYC to broadcast to others what you have in mind. No idea is too big. No idea is too small. Join or Create Projects: Look for projects in

your neighborhood or around the city where you can help. You can also use Change by Us NYC to set up and lead your own project, and turn your idea into reality. Use Change by Us NYC to connect quickly with the people who will help your project from start to finish. Someone has the idea, someone has the plan, someone has the tools, and together you succeed.

3 things I remember from ICWSM (4th-7th June)

June 27th, 2012

Three weeks after the conference, here is what is still clear in my mind and left from my notes. These are my three big take-aways:

1.     Robin Dunbar’s Invited Talk

A much anticipated talk by Dunbar (the Dunbar number, full of fun yet important research. I am not sure how much of it was done by Dunbar himself but this is more or less what the talk was about:
Social grooming online (interesting analogy with ape grooming behaviour here); As little as “liking” someone’s photo online can help sustain a relationship over distance. This online “grooming” can also increase social capital. This is more easily done by women, who can sustain a friendship with another female entirely based on distance communication e.g. phone conversations (thus the higher social media usage for females too), on the other hand male friends need to engage in activities with one another to sustain the relationship e.g., go to the pub and watch a game.  As male and female call times and patterns were compared, there was laughter in the audience due to the sharp contrast (you can imagine which was higher). This has obvious implications for how male and female social networks change over distance.

Robin Dunbar Presentation

Robin Dunbar taking questions from the audience

Social investment in romantic relationships is higher from women at the beginning and shifts later in the relationship (possibly after childbirth). Evidence shows that males are much more passive when it comes to choosing a mate, whereas females do most of the work associated with finding and keeping a partner. Entering in a romantic relationship also costs you two friends. Human capacity for giving attention in sustaining relationships is limited and a lot of investment is required for “securing a mate”, at an

estimated cost of two friends (one friend and one family member usually). This is also where the Dunbar number comes in. It was pointed out that you can’t tattoo more than 150 Facebook profile pictures on a standard arm, another validation of the number (see to get this).

Extra Dunbar wisdom: 1) If you want to be the next Nobel prize winner, invent “the virtual touch” 2) Change academic fields every seven years 3) Laughter turns strangers into friends, sense of humour is the strongest homophilic bond

2.     Igor Perisic (LinkedIn), keynote talk

Despite being the only person in the audience not familiar with LinkedIn, I really enjoyed this talk because LinkedIn seems to be a transparent and data-rich platform.

It was pointed out that recommender sites (e.g. dating sites) give you 2nd or 3rd best match to keep you happy yet coming back for more (not sure if LinkedIn does this with jobs?);
If one of your colleagues leaves, you are at high risk of leaving in the next six months;
A gravity model was presented – where you are likely to go/stay for work using LinkedIn recommendations;
The length of your name/your name could determine how successful you are/what business you might go in (to consider when picking baby names)

3.   The state we’re in.

I haven’t been long in this trade but

some things that stood out to me as “novel” were:

1) The idea of “social web” promoted by Google (or Google’s Andrew Tomkins to be politically correct). This means that everything from banking to retail will be embedded in a social network that is task-oriented, so all those hours spent on social media will be more productive (It wasn’t stated specifically how). Question-asking online and bringing bots into social media was  also demonstrated in SearchBuddies: Bringing Search Engines into the Conversation, and the effects of this method were evaluated. The whole concept of “social web” emerged as the future of social media during the conference.
2) We often look at one platform and reach global conclusions, in Crossing Media Streams with Sentiment an important reminder of cross-platform analysis was given. Twitter, Blogs and Reviews were explored to demonstrate these differences. Attention needs to be given when giving titles to papers, not to overstate the impact of findings e.g. “Social Media Sentiments”, when only Twitter is analysed in the work.
3) Is privacy virtually dead? If even our privacy settings can reveal who we are, is there any way to remain private online? This is something that came to mind during Daniele’s talk and later in discussion of the digital divide and browsing behaviour in Who Does What on the Web. Not only gender but also ethnicity, education (and much more) can be derived from browsing behaviour.  In Grief Stricken in a Crowd, the grieving process goes online and language can be analysed to detect those in need of counselling or help. I suppose social media analysis will soon be able to tell us more about ourselves than we know.
And the rest was as ordered…

Bar view at the top of the Guinness Storehouse

smart cities, big data

April 18th, 2012

 it’s the title of a

very nice editorial (pdf) by mike batty. i’m from the bit (and not from the beat) generation, and yet i like to cut & paste bits from the editorial (i would recommend to fully read it though):

I first wrote about `smart cities’ almost as soon as I began writing these editorials in the early 1980s. … In the 1980s the focus on instrumenting the city using network technologies was enshrined in the

idea of the wired city. … Many of these conceptions were based on visions of what wired cities might become rather than on the reality of what was actually possible then. … What has changed these initial conceptions of the wired city is the development of ubiquitous devices of comparatively low cost that can be deployed to sense what is happening over very small time scales – seconds and faster – as well as over very fine levels of spatial resolution.

The idea of integrating much of this diverse data together to add value to our conceptions of how it might be linked to other more traditional data as well as focusing it on specific ways to make cities more efficient and more equitable, has come to define the `smart cities movement’.

Most urban theory and indeed planning and design fifty years or more ago was predicated on radical and massive change to city form and structure through instruments such as new towns, large-scale highway building, redevelopment, and public housing schemes. Planning was little concerned with smaller-scale development except its design, for nowhere was the function of the city understood in terms of how small spaces and local movements sustained the city. In short, the routine and short term were subsumed in the much longer term. New data and big data are changing all of this…

This is an issue that has barely been broached to date – how short-term big data informs longer-term data is part and parcel of our concern for how we might integrate traditional datasets from household interviews and so on with crowd-sourced data where there is less control, and remotely or directly sensed data.

crowdsourcing in the physical world

April 16th, 2012

In the late 1970s, a group of people living in the east London borough of Hackney began building a structure on a derelict lot in their neighborhood. They continued building until 2009. The story of the project’s origins is shrouded in mystery, but

what is known is that, because the residents couldn’t decide on what they wanted to build, they made three rules. The first was that, not only would they build without any plan or blueprint, they would not discuss the direction of the project at all. Second, when they were on the building site, no one was allowed to speak — at all. Third, the building would never be completed, because anyone at any point could decide to take it in a new direction. The structure was continually built under these conditions for thirty years

— Emanuel Almborg, The Rest is Silence, 2009

Designing for social sustainability

April 15th, 2012

The pressing housing crisis requires the construction of new building and neighborhoods.U.K.-based Young Foundation recently published a report (pdf) that aims to ensure that strengthening social infrastructure is part of the construction agenda.

at a practical level the tools, instruments and metrics to foster sustainable urban development currently available are biased toward environmental and economic sustainability

They have developed a framework containing four elements that are essential to build new communities that will be  socially sustainable:

  1. Amenities and social infrastrucutre (new communities need services and support, not just buildings);
  2. Social and cultural life (new communities need shared spaces, shared rituals & support to build social networks);
  3. Voice and influence (“foremost, residents need to have a say in shaping their surroundings …);
  4. and Space

    to grow (flexible use of land and buildings is essential)



ICT buildings coming to life

April 15th, 2012

How new sensor technology could allow furniture and buildings to adapt to the people using them. BBC Video

One of the examples they gave was the inflatable temperature-controlling building in Poblenou district Barcelona. The building’s façade is made of inflatable ETFE cushions oriented south and acts as a variable sunscreen (opening in winter to gain solar energy, and closing in summer to protect and shade).

dissertation writing tips

Disrespect, Violence, and Privacy Outcries: From the Bible to Google

April 11th, 2012

Licia and I

wrote a piece for Middleware titled “Middleware for Social Computing: A Roadmap“. One of the sections was about how the middleware research agenda could promote healthy social norms at design stage. The main idea is that:

to promote the emergence of healthy social norms, system design of social media sites is crucially important. The way a new system is designed partly impacts which social norms emerge in it. However, once settled, social norms are hard to change, and when companies (e.g., Google) tell people how they must behave (e.g., they enforce the use of real identities), things go terribly wrong.

That is because being forcibly told how to use a service is perceived as a sign of disrespect by users, and disrespect has often cause violence in physical societies and, for now, only public outcries

in digital systems

. To explain why more unequal societies experience more violence, in their book “The Spirit Level”, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett cite the work of the Harvard Medical School psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has said that he has

yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of being shamed and humiliated… and that did not represent the attempt to … undo this “loss of face”.

The two authors also recall that, over 2000 years ago, Cain committed the first murder in history by killing his brother Abel because God has rejected his offerings of produce but accepted the animal sacrifices brought by Abel. In King James Version of Genesis:

And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth

Disrespect as a cause for violence is a human truth recognised for millennia. It comes as no surprise that this truth still holds in our digital world. What is surprising, instead, is that large media companies keep on making the same mistake over and over again. When Google launched a social media service called Google Plus, most of its early adopters were using their real names, and a few were not. Google decided to go after those few with a heavy-handed regulatory policy to enforce the use of real names, and Google+ started to sink, and sink, and sink . The interaction designer behind  Google+ Paul Adams did not agreed with those brilliant engineering decisions and “was forced to move” to Facebook. Any better over there?

- daniele

[funny] inequality explained

March 30th, 2012



Level book