Designing Better Cities with a Sports Tracker

I sum up that in 50 years nobody has systematically looked after a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. We have written very few books about it. There’s been very little research done. We definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens.

Writer Susan Sontag stated in 1977 that everything exists to end in a photograph. Today, equally fair might be to say that everything exists to end in a massive data storage. We have never had so much information about people, what they do, what they like and where they do it than we do now.

Considering how much data we already have, it is surprising how little we use it for making our cities better. What Jan Gehl said about research done on urban habitats is partly right, but this is mostly due to the fact that we did not have the data earlier, or it was too demanding to collect.

But all this is changing fast—in order to understand how cities function we do not need to collect all the data by ourselves anymore. To describe and study what (a good) urban habitat for Homo sapiens would be like (aside from the usual buildings, infrastructure, public space) we can also look at the streams of information that people are constantly producing while interacting with their surroundings via digital technologies.

There are many sources for that data: Public records can now be contested and supplemented with data produced by commercial applications. The private sector is extending into the area that has usually been under governmental control—statistics about life.

There are also companies, such as Space Syntax, that specialize in systematically examining the relation between space and movement. And we have several apps that collect data for us and give it back in a form we can easily read and grasp.

We are voluntarily giving away a huge amount of information on how we live in cities. With all the data at our disposal, anyone can do what Gehl’s office has done for years—study the relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life.

Collecting information is smart, not evil

New models of smartphones have built-in batteries that can not be taken off. Switching off your phone does not mean it cannot be traced anymore. Everybody has a phone, all the time, which means someone knows where you are, all the time.

Location-based data is no longer a sign of big brother watching, but an example of how the wireless industry works—phone operators have had the same information before, but it has been, and still is, illegal to use it without a government order.

Everybody has a phone, all the time. Someone knows where you are, all the time.

The usual reaction to tracking is suspicion, the fact that someone knows so much about us is eerie. But how does the fact that companies monitor consumers differ from us using apps to monitor ourselves?

The past few years have seen a wave of apps whose primary function is to monitor and report how you move throughout the day. They are often called activity diaries, even though their potential use stretches beyond personal: the data can be used for developing services, cities and often the companies that provide the app in the first place.

Why is everybody interested in tracking?

Information distribution is a compromise. In the morning you turn on an app, such as Moves, and in the evening you get back a detailed description of how you performed during the day. Or if you commute by car, sharing your location with Waze will allow you to avoid traffic jams on your way to work. Sounds like a classic win-win-situation, but the biggest gainers are not always clear.

Waze provides real-time traffic information in exchange for sharing your mobile device location.

There are innumerable ways to track how people move. This interests the world’s biggest companies too—in the last few years Google bought Waze and Facebook bought Moves. There is nothing exceptional in a bigger company buying a smaller, popular service, but both these acquisitions underline the importance of location-based data.

Commercial actors are interested in your information in order to enhance their business. Public actors, such as city planning departments, are interested in how you move in the city in order to make the city better. Not only do public and private organizations use data for different purposes, but they also have different ways of collecting it: tracking apps monitor your activities all the time, whereas public actors often conduct surveys or rely on standardized points of measurement in the city.

Creating your own digital autobiography is supposed to help you improve yourself—for instance by being able to monitor your activities during the day helps you improve your personal performance. If you ran for 5 kilometers today, you can run a little bit longer tomorrow. If a screen tracker indicates that you spend 18 % of your day idling on the web, you might reduce that tomorrow to 16 %.

Regardless of whether recording and analyzing your life is good for you or not, it has certainly become very easy.

How to use data for urban initiatives

Everybody loves the GPS. It can tell you where you are, or for example where an endangered elephant is. Anyone even remotely working with urban planning loves GIS. Location and space have brought a new element into how information is displayed. They are already emphasized nearly as much as the actual substance.

Geographics used to be the circumstance, now it is the first thing we know about pretty much anything. Location is no longer a frame for content—it is as important as the content.

Location used to be a frame for the substance and it was rarely displayed. Now information is often presented on a map, it emphasizes where is it just as much as what is it. The visualization shows the average number of bicycles per day, tracked on routes leading to/from Helsinki city centre during September 2012. Source: Helsinki Region Infoshare & Helsinki City Planning Department

Despite the fear of someone watching us against our will, collecting information is often productive rather than evil. The data helps in developing our physical and digital environments into better functioning places to be and use. Urban projects are a good example of how this works.

During the time of writing, there are two very different urban initiatives in process in Helsinki: Hämeentie bikelane and The People’s Park. The first one is a traditional initiative to get a bike lane into one of the most important streets near city center. The latter, if carried out, would change the face of the Töölö Bay area at the heart of the city. Hämeentie bike lane centers around rhetoric arguments; the bike lane should be built because

  1. it is an important street for cyclists
  2. it is not important for cars
  3. it is currently dangerous
  4. a bike lane would speed up public transportation
  5. the city’s strategy endorses cycling.

All of these claims are valid, but they rely more on rhetorics than on numbers. Meanwhile, the People’s Park plan is supported by ample use of numbers: how much it costs, how many people the hotel will accommodate etc.

Data does not have to mean numbers, it can be maps, graphs, any display of information that explains your case. In disputes and city planning, evidence-based arguments have a tendency to win.

Two ongoing urban initiatives in Helsinki differ in content and use of data. People’s Park is presented as a positive change that would benefit everyone in the city. Hämeentie bikelane is an example of politicization of traffic. The campaign promotes a bikelane, but is faced with endless confrontation between cyclists and motorists. People’s Park uses numbers to make its case, Hämeentie campaign leans on rhetorical arguments. Screen captures of People’s Park promotion video and Hämeentie campaign site.

These two initiatives differ in scale, resources and presentation. The People’s Park is run by a creative agency, Hämeentie is an independent campaign run by pro-cyclist activists. The initiatives have one thing in common: both want to make the city more livable and both have to face the city council to get things going.

A good strategy for both is to gather evidence and call them facts. It will help in the city council.

Evidence-based cities and numbers

Has the campaign for Hämeentie bike lane used all the data possible to make its case? It is of course unfair to compare Hämeentie and The People’s Park initiatives as using data to support your cause demands work: an independently run campaign does not have the same resources as a big marketing agency. Instead of numbers, Hämeentie campaign relies on public support it: by August 2014, over ten thousand people had signed a petition on behalf of the bikelane.

Using data would make the arguments used for Hämeentie campaign less dependent on shared ethics and mandatory cycler-habitus, and thus stronger. New technology enables easy access to information that can be used for urban planning and activism. The past decade introduced urban activism as the best way to influence your surroundings, the next few years will be about evidence-based activism.

If we can quantify our lives into datasets, it should be possible to do the same for any other complex system.

The data gathered by commercial apps can be used for urban planning: a fitness app called Strava sells its data to cities developing infrastructure that would meet the needs of the people. Data tells the planners where the cyclists, pedestrians and drivers are.

Tracking apps are building a set of data that the public sector does not have, but could use. Planners and designers need to know what to do with the information they could now easily get their hands on.

If we can quantify our lives into datasets, it should be possible to do the same for any other complex system. By looking at communally and individually gathered data, we should be able to know pretty much everything that happens in a city and develop a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens.


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With kind regards,

Signature of Jyrki Vanamo