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New Digital Tools for Travelers Mean New Questions About Public Space

BY Nick Judd | Monday, September 19 2011

Rights of Way: How much does your commute say about you, and who gets to know? Photo of a 7 Train in Queens, N.Y. by Rafael Castellon / Flickr

Announcements are coming fast and furious here in New York: The city and the various authorities looking after our commuter interests are launching tool after digital tool to make our commutes easier and maybe more interesting. But they're also forcing us to reconsider the meaning of "public space" — in many definitions of the term.

The public authority that runs New York's subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, on Monday announced a pilot project with Cisco to install location-aware, interactive terminals at five public transit stations in New York City — with the grand unveiling at a terminal in Bowling Green station in Lower Manhattan.

The same way "public parks" in New York and elsewhere increasingly rely on deals with private entities to stay funded and maintained, ostensibly public objects like this one can also have private ties. These Cisco terminals, according to an MTA press release, will provide users with information from Zagat, the restaurant guide, and the social business review site mycity. MTA spokesmen declined to discuss any cost information or the nature of the relationships with Zagat or mycity, saying the authority does not discuss financial information about pilot projects until after the pilots are over. Without talking dollar amounts, MTA Spokesman Kevin Ortiz wrote in an email that Cisco is footing the bill for many of the costs, while the public authority will pay for labor. The pilot will run 180 days.

This is just the latest in a long series of new digital arrivals in streets, bus stops and other public places. Chicago's buses already have location-aware ads that change based on what neighborhood the bus is in, and the Windy City's chief technology officer, John Tolva, told me earlier this month that Chicago's L train and bus stops are due soon for interactive displays similar to what the MTA announced Monday.

And anyone who has taken a ride in a New York taxi in recent years could tell you that those terminals carry content from local network affiliates — a potentially lucrative opportunity for the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, which can now sell the right to put content in front of a captive audience.

These are some of the first real-world digital interventions that many people will see in their daily commutes, but theorists and thinkers have been chewing for some time on how they will change our lives as they become more ubiquitous. A favorite example of Adam Greenfield, founder of the urban design firm Urbanscale and author of "Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing," is more intrusive: digital vending machines in Japan that use facial recognition software to make inferences about your age, gender and race, and use that information to suggest what drink you should buy.

That's among the most garish examples of the new possibilities open to both public and private players in the American street — an ever greater number of interactions can be two-way, for better or worse. Remember those interactive cab terminals? They are GPS-enabled; taxi drivers complained when they were first installed that they allowed an unprecedented level of intrusion into each driver's route and habits. On the streets of San Francisco and Roosevelt Island, parking spots can post updates on the Internet as they become occupied or go empty. The New York Times reported recently that the last of Gotham's old coin-operated parking meters are soon to be gone, replaced with wifi-enabled, solar-powered meters that track multiple spots at once — and that can take credit card payments. In theory, these, too, should be able to provide some insight about where there is or is not parking.

"You're beginning to pull information off of real people's real use of the real city," Greenfield told me recently, "And to be able to run some services on top of those things like dynamic pricing services for parking."

That's all well and good, but how much information from each person is too much? At what level does interaction become intrusion? And at what point, in an age of things that change how they react to you based on a guess about who you are, does a content deal become a violation of privacy? These are all valid questions already, and they're growing in validity. What we're seeing is the rise of something Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva described to me as the "digital public way:" That hodgepodge of digital objects in public space that are encountering city dwellers here and there throughout daily life as much as the city dwellers are encountering them.

Nearness from Timo on Vimeo.

There is a whole new frontier, Tolva adds, with the coming ubiquity of something called "near-field communication:" This is a riff on the contactless communication that allows you to "tap" some credit cards at the grocery store (or in one of those cabs) rather than swiping them. NFC is a set of specific protocols that handle data communication at a set distance. Peripherals for mobile phones could make them NFC-capable, and a growing number of phones already are. Here in New York, the MTA is so enthusiastic about the results of a pilot project for contactless fare payments at turnstiles that a spokesman, Aaron Donovan, told me recently the authority expects in mid-October to start taking proposals on a full-blown rollout. Here are another set of questions, including: Who decides what comes and goes from your phone, or your credit card, along with the details necessary to make a payment?

So we're talking, in some sense, about what might be rather than what is — but only in some sense. In others, that future is here.

Now, Tolva says — at least in Chicago — that digital public way is a frontier. Literally.

"It's the wild West," he told me — there are few rules governing the kinds of things the city can allow on its screens, that private businesses can do from their own property or, for example, their easements on the sidewalk.

"Looking at the public way there is some very disarticulated network architecture here," Tolva said of his own city, speaking to me by phone earlier this month. "We have digital parking meters, here 4,500 of them ... we have L stops and bus shelters that have digital signage."

In Chicago, Tolva is thinking about a framework for what interactions are allowed in that space. He likens it to the way restaurants can put out signs or set up tables on the sidewalk — that use of public space has set parameters and limits.

"What I'm preferring to do is thinking through the technical but also the legal implications of basically permitting a digital public way," Tolva told me.

In a follow-up email, he wrote:

"Mostly I mean thinking through the role that the city can play in defining standards that make for an orderly, open, and fertile digital space. Not unlike cities lay the physical foundation of public spaces to afford certain kinds of uses. Not prescriptive, but open in the way that a kernel or low-level OS permits usage (applications) to be built atop it."

Later in that email, he wrote:

"But more than anything I'm interested in making the city's digital public spaces serve the resident or visitor. Not the other way around!"

Here in New York, the MTA's experimental Cisco panels will provide real-time information on trip planning, real-time service status, escalator & elevator status and local neighborhood maps. In addition, the MTA has partnered with third party developers to include applications which provide additional information, such as local history, shopping and dining options nearby provided by third-party applications mycity app and Zagats. As added features, the screens will provide news and weather information.

Serving the resident or visitor — so stipulated. But put another way, Zagats and Mycity are gaining insight on what visitors at specific subway stops around the city want to see, read, and maybe eat. This is not a transaction in which the visitor or resident, or the MTA, gets something for nothing — and here as elsewhere officials are noting that it's time to figure out what the rules for these kinds of interactions should be.

This post has been updated.