October 03, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: October 3rd 2022 Edition

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September 12, 2022

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Undoing Optimization by Alison B. Powell

Undoing Optimization by Alison B. Powell is an excellent primer on "smart cities". It starts by looking at the evolution of them, then dives deep into problems with their default framing, and what we could do which would be better.

I loved how this book opened. Such strong opening paragraphs which brought the subject to life with a simple anecdote. Here are the sections I highlighted whilst reading it...

Page 1

Then we hurry across, because this signal doesn't usually last long enough for a child to walk across the road before it switches back to letting the cars, trucks, and buses through. When we get to the other side, my daughter asks, "How do they decide when the lights should change? Is there a person somewhere who does it, or is it a computer? Do they make them change at different times when there are not so many cars?"

Page 38

"We are now selling the smart city. It is an economic development tool. ... Wi-Fi is becoming the order of the day. It is like having better sidewalks—if you ask a city if they would rather have bad sidewalks or better sidewalks, they will always say they want better sidewalks. The overall principle doesn't change."

Reminds me of my thoughts on "superfast broadband" from back when I was invited to Council tech strategy meetings...

Page 55

This overall process of optimization narrows the frame for citizenship, individuals are perceived as consumers who can be nudged to change their behaviour based on predictions extracted from data they share.

Page 62

For example, smartphone apps can suggest straightforward walking routes to unknown destinations, make it easy to find restaurants similar to those you have already eaten at, or predict accurately when the bus will arrive. Of course, the logic of predictability and, indeed, possibility have deeper social consequences—because the big data produced in smart cities requires "small analytics" that, by aggregating, parsing, cleaning, and ordering data, enact particular social assumptions. This cleaning, ordering, and parsing is needed to make a cybernetic feedback system return optimal results, but the process removes most of the traces of friction and difference that are part of the reality of urban life.

Page 73

machine-learning techniques require a certain amount of stability in order to generate predictions.

Page 74

It is relatively straightforward to optimize transportation or the collection of recycling but more difficult to optimize volunteering, knowing neighbors, or creating local capacity to take care of people in a crisis.

Page 91

But seeing the city as only a marketplace reduces citizens to consumers and makes data advocates the critics of an administrative state that technology industry pundits like O'Reilly think should be replaced with more efficient platform-based marketplaces. For example, in the years after the founding of the ODI, it began to advocate for opening up commercial data as well as government data and to act less as an advocate and more as a networked broker of data-related discussions and connections, employing commercial and business justifications to advocate for businesses to release data that could be examined and reused by others. This shift over time illustrates how it is often easier for open data to be understood and justified in relation to innovation and open markets than it is to conceive of it as a shared or collective resource.

Page 95

Faced with the reality of class-based and racial discrimination, data do not automatically generate the kind of stories that garner attention and data that questions the decisions of the powerful can still be ignored.

Page 96

Being a civic intermediary for published open data is a significant responsibility, requiring advocates to strike a balance between the risks of publishing and the benefits of transparency. Organizations, including governments, can be defensive about making data publicly available and worried about misinterpretation. An interviewee said, "The way you deal with that is make sure you publish all the context that goes with it. So, you describe how it's been collected. You want to help people understand where there are limits in using the data, ways that you can usefully use it or ways that you shouldn't use it."

Reminds me of my well-worn Usman Haque quote: "It's not about making data public, it's about the public making data."

Page 100

The contracting standards that Open Digital Service Co-operative created include standards intended to prevent data from suddenly becoming the property of a different company after the takeover of a government service-provision contract. The detail-oriented excavation of the issues underlying the brokerage of data in smart cities shows the high level of political and technical skill required to carry public interest requirements into the heart of the function of a platformed government. For community advocacy using data to be successful, that data needs to be accessible, comparable, and usable, and it must remain in the public realm.

Page 127

For data to be used to address issues of justice, processes need to be put in place to make the measurements actionable and, furthermore, to link the collection of data to the problem defined in the first place. This is a more complex process than simply collecting data or even working through it in a hackathon; it depends on the community advocacy and capacity building that were part of the effort at building the commons but that otherwise don't fit the city-as-platform framework.

Page 137

Geese were originally misrecognized as shopping carts in water quality sensing applications in Oxford. Thinking about misrecognized animals also helps us to start thinking about the way that people are misrecognized and about how the emergent properties of "design" strategies for data-optimized smart cities also cause misrecognition.

Page 163

The tensions in datafication show that power and agency are always at work in influencing who can speak, be heard, or act in relation to things that matter in the places they live.

Page 171

The smart city in its data-based version measures everything and optimizes the processes that can be best represented through measurement. There are civic efforts to influence the consequences of such datafication by challenging the knowledge meant to be held by the data or the ontological power of organizing reality that smart cities promise, and these efforts can shift ways of thinking and acting. However, they still reinforce and reiterate the idea that a city is a system to be measured and made knowable and that data accrued as part of this measurement is a material that can be gathered and stocked.

Page 177

It means following a strategy of minimizing, rather than maximizing, this kind of data, and it means seeking to employ decision-making strategies that may appear to be more costly on the surface but that leave space for different kinds of knowledge, as well as for data to decay over time, for frictions to be identified and addressed, and for different forms of democratic participation and accountability, including but not limited to data audit, sensing citizenship, and autonomous networking. It means leaving room for determining what can be known, claimed, and acted upon outside, against, and within the data.

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August 29, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 29th 2022 Edition

  • Beatlemania, although it's not really about the Beatles. Informational cascades helped the Beatles become (rightly) massively successful. Reputational cascades prop up so much mediocre or terrible projects in Liverpool. I'm here hoping that my work is high enough quality and that I can surf the right levels of luck and external interest in order to wind up in the first camp.
  • Britain’s Fastest Self-Powered Human: Mike Burrows. Fantastic article on a super interesting bicycle designer, who sadly died recently.
  • Practice the future. I love this concept of practising the future. I think it's a large part of what we do at DoES Liverpool.
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August 15, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: August 15th 2022 Edition

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July 25, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 25th 2022 Edition

  • What would “Retrofitting your town/city” courses and workshops be like in practice? Excellent thoughts on how cities should be getting on with the work we need to do to tackle the climate emergency.
  • NYC x MFG. As in New York, also in Liverpool.
  • Restoring American Competitiveness. Again, not just America, rebuilding our industrial commons is important. We need to stop giving decisions about manufacturing policy to people who don't realise you can't separate supposed "high value" manufacturing from the rest of manufacturing, and stop thinking that property folk running facilities that house certain types of businesses can productively speak on behalf of those businesses.
    "In general, government has been effective in its support for innovation when it has acted as a customer seeking a solution to a concrete, compelling need or when it has been a patron of basic or applied research that has the potential for broad application. Conversely, its support of innovation has generally failed when it has not had a user’s stake in the outcome or when it has bet on unproven technical solutions that required extensive knowledge of commercial applications or market realities that it lacked."
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July 18, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 18th 2022 Edition

  • Equipment Supply Shocks. DoES Liverpool is a good, albeit small, example of this — we've made laser-cutting and much more available to lots of folk in Liverpool. We don't measure or care (at a filling-in-forms level) about how that impact spreads and achieve more impact as a result. I like the applying-in-public ideas in that article too, that might help make all the innovation and regeneration funding do something useful.
  • It's worse than you think. But that might not be a bad thing.
  • The week the open web won. More of us should be writing our truth into the public record, on sites that we control. I want to read more of them.
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July 04, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: July 4th 2022 Edition

  • Manufacturing an Ecosystem. You can replace the US with Liverpool in this article and get most of my thoughts after doing the Indie Manufacturing project. The "high value manufacturing" jobs won't exist in a vacuum, they'll be mixed with supposed-"low value" manufacturing processes, and will need such capabilities locally.
  • Am I on the IndieWeb Yet? (aside: I love the fact that the jauntily-angled text for the header on that site is just text, so i can highlight and copy it) The IndieWeb is great, but it needs to be easier for non-web-developers to get started with.
  • ‘A massive betrayal’: how London’s Olympic legacy was sold out. A depressing but entirely predictable article about the "regeneration" of East London. It would be good if the media asked more questions and were less credulous when these things are proposed. At least we're starting to see alternatives coming along with councils such as Liverpool taking Community Land Trusts (CLTs) seriously.
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April 04, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: April 4th 2022 Edition

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March 25, 2022

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Everything I Know About Life I Learned From PowerPoint by Russell Davies

A delightful book, that happens to be about giving presentations.

I've been giving talks for years, but I still learnt useful things reading Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by my friend Russell Davies. And it's changed how I've pulled together the presentations I've given since. I expect the presentation-averse would get even more from it.

Here are the sections I highlighted while reading, to give you a flavour...

Page vi

I'm using PowerPoint to stand in for Presentation Software — the category it created. ((I imagine Microsoft's lawyers will hate that. They'll be as angry as when people use Hoover to mean vacuum cleaner, or Google to mean 'abuse of monopoly power')

Page vii

When you prepare a presentation you do a lot of homework and research and thinking. It's natural to get attached to that stuff. You want to demonstrate the effort you've made. And to make it clear that you've thought about the edge cases and the extra things that people might ask about. If you do all that, though, you'll overwhelm your main point with detail, so just start by saying: this is what we're going to cover and this is what we're not.

Page 15

First, almost everyone can be a great presenter. You just need to talk about something you care or know about, and you need to do it to a supportive audience.

Page 26

"Find out who you are and do it on purpose." Said by the great Dolly Parton.

Page 99

And the conversational style of a good presentation helps too. It's not a speech, it's not radio, it's structured but conversational.

Page 103

So much of modern business life is like Tetris. Email, chat, Slack, everything. You complete a line and more stuff just comes at you.
A presentation also offers the special pleasure of being completable. A PowerPoint deck can be finished. You can tick it off. A presentation happens and then you can move on.

Page 125

This is your opportunity to ask for something that will make the world slightly better. You might as well take it. Otherwise what is the point?

Page 129

We call these things 'stories' but they don't have to be life-changing narratives with the tension and power of a Norse myth. Just some stuff that happened to some people.

Page 209

Everyone gets nervous, that's inevitable. A presentation is an important moment. You're occupying people's time and attention. That's bound to create some heightened feelings. The trick is to let your nerves push you into doing the right thing.

Page 247

But then you have to worry — what should I collect [in your ongoing library of slide and ideas in personal PowerPoint decks]? What would be useful?

It's simple. Things that interest you. Things you find fascinating. Remember — this is a long-term pursuit, there's not much point trying to guess what's going to be useful or career-enhancing ten or fifteen years from now. Instead you should have faith that what interests you is going to come in handy. Because it almost certainly will.

And if it doesn't interest you you're not going to do it diligently and it's going to feel like work.

Make your natural inquisitiveness into something a little more structured. Turn it from idly browsing the Internet into research.

Page 253

As the writer Steven Johnson puts it, in an article in the Wall Street Journal:

[...] We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

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March 14, 2022

Interesting Things on the Internet: March 14th 2022 Edition

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