(Un)plugging Data in Smart City-Regions

By: Professor Michael Keith and Dr Igor Calzada, University of Oxford


On 14 November 2016 the Urban Transformations programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), brought together a range of academics and practitioners from across Europe for a knowledge exchange event on smart cities. This workshop, which took place at the Centre for Studies, Media and Telecommunication (SMIT) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), was the first of a series entitled Bridging European Urban Transformations established in partnership with the VUB and its Brussels Centre for Urban Studies, with support from the RSA Smart City–Regional Governance for Sustainability Research Network. In this post-Brexit era, cooperation across borders and disciplines seems more important than ever before. Consequently the series, which runs from November 2016 to October 2017, emphasises the value of connections between institutions and key players in the field of urban transformations, in the UK and in the rest of Europe.

The workshop, (Un)Plugging Data in Smart City-Regions, focused on the necessity of unpacking and deconstructing the ‘smart cities’ paradigm that has been so influential in structuring the European policy agenda. The core idea that drove the discussions was the need to define the interconnections between ‘hard’ and smart’ infrastructures and the broader economic, political and social systems at the metropolitan and regional scales. The workshop was broken down into three themes: addressing new sources for data collection, storage and usage; urban expertise for citizen/user involvement; and finally, smart knowledge and expertise to tackle urban inequalities.

According to Gartner, 1.6 billion connected devices will be hooked up to the larger smart city infrastructure worldwide by the end of this year. However, as was highlighted in the discussions, some uncertainties remain at the centre of the debate around what Yuval Noah Harari has described as ‘dataism’. The workshop showcased how various projects within the ESRC Urban Transformations portfolio were exploring innovative strategies of data collection, storage and usage to harness urban and regional smart governance models to guide decision-making processes.

Richard Tuffs, the director of the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN), a platform that connects academics and practitioners in a wide diverse of research fields within the European regions, introduced the workshop, emphasising the importance of citizen concerns regarding data policies and the role of institutions to foster ecosystems of experimentation via what are known as Triple/Quadruple/Penta Helix approaches, thinking through stakeholder interdependencies engaging not only the public sector, private sector and academia but also civic society, social entrepreneurs and activists.

In the first thematic discussion, addressing new sources of data collection, storage and usage, Peter Triantafillou, from the Urban Big Data Centre in Glasgow, presented the major obstacles to fostering a people-centred design of data that he called the ‘human in the loop’ – the acquisition, sharability and licensing restrictions of the obtained data. He advocated closer collaboration between computer scientists and social and political researchers in developing stronger evidence-based research on how tackle unexplored data issues so far. Paul Cowie, an Urban Transformations Research Fellow based at Newcastle University and Future Cities Catapult, elaborated on the need to consider individuals not only as citizens deliberating on their material conditions, but also as consumers agreeing and disagreeing to the particular terms of a service. In this respect, there he advocated a more human-centred approach to the smart city – one that fosters interplay and interdependencies among multiple stakeholders.

Citizen interaction, engagement, involvement, participation and deliberation are at the centre of the debates around smart cities and big data. How should we deal with the lack of trust, apathy and open outrage that has become increasingy evident in popular political attitudes today? The misalignments between technology and the social needs of citizens in data generation were identified as a common dilemma today: will data-driven devices continue to serve citizens or vice versa? As a consequence, different forms of engagemssent were discussed. However, as Morozov has argued, despite the plethora of technological solutions to social problems, key questions remained unanswered: ‘Who gets to implement data?’, for example, and ‘what kinds of politics of data do technological solutions smuggle through the back door?’. Discussions highlighted how the calls for data to be ‘open’, while apparently simple, in reality challenge existing legal norms and pose profound implications for users along the chain. For example, liability risks might be passed to the end user of open data – but what if end users cannot bear the risk? In the internet of things (IoT) generates continuous monitoring and commonly individualised data, how should we theorise, regulate and make visible the ethical choices that have now emerged around the legal liability surrounding the ownership of data?

The second thematic discussion showcased two participatory smart city projects: HackAIR and Flamenco (Flanders Mobile Enacted Citizen Observatories ). The first, HackAIR, is social innovation project and open technology platform for citizen observatories on air quality. The discussion focused on the levels of citizen engagement and related strategies such as crowdsourcing (citizens as sensors), distributed intelligence (citizens as basic interpreters), participatory science (citizens as participants in data collection) and extreme collaborative science (citizens as participants in problem definition and data analysis). The call to transit from the conception of citizens as data providers to citizens as decision makers provoked a powerful debate on the ethical dimensions of participatory innovative technologies. Flamenco developed this theme further, exploring how citizens can be empowered to tailor their own observatories based on participatory sensing and citizen science principles. An inter-disciplinary team presented a demonstration on the applicability of the project from computer science and social science perspectives.

In the final thematic strand of the workshop, the discussions focused on socio-economic developments and institutional capacity. The City of Things, presented by Pieter Ballon from SMIT-VUB, explored the experimental dimensions of data-driven living labs. In the presentation, these were related to multi-stakeholder co-creation processes for business, user design, prototyping and product development (aspects that will be explored at the next workshop on 13 February 2017 in Brussels). To conclude the workshop, Joana Barros from Birbeck, University of London, based within the Urban Transformations project RESOLUTION: REsilient Systems fOr Land Use TransportatION, highlighted the methodological difficulties involved in gathering and comparing data in two distinct metropolitan regions, London and São Paulo.

The workshop demonstrated that in one sense what was once novel has become received wisdom. It is now ‘common sense’ to suggest that the nature of the metropolis demands forms of knowledge that transcend old boundaries between humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. It has become almost self evident to assert that a model of knowledge production that is produced ‘upstream’ in the academy and then exported ‘downstream’ to city hall and local governance structures is inadequate for the metropolitan challenges of the 21st century. Instead we have moved towards a stronger sense of co-production between research and practice. The sense that the questions arise in the real world, but the answers are to be found in the academy, is less plausible than ever.

And yet. At worst, at times the ‘smart’ agenda, particularly in journalistic form and at times in spite of itself, can look like a return through the back door of a technocratic determinism whereby all urban ills are resolved through scientific solutions. Complexity can be analyically generative, simplicity narratively powerful. Such naïve arguments are in reality more often the belief of second rate technocrats and third rate academic critique.


More interestingly we see a situation where the complex and open systems of urban life are disrupted by rapid social change and powerful economic forces. Recognising that such change is unpredictable in its disruptive form and uneven in its social consequences, one function of academic research is to speculate, to test, to map and to trace how disruptive technologies restructure the relationship between the individual and the city. The smart citizen at the heart of the new city needs to uncerstand both the emancipatory potential and the divisive consequences of different moments of disruptive innovation. As Ballon suggested in the case of his living lab in Brussels, it is the duty and function of Urban Living Labs to surface and make visible the choices at stake rather than provide singular solutions to problems. How we make these choices then becomes a mediation of scientific expertise and deliberative democracy.

ESRC investments and collaborative links in Brussels at the workshop highlighted how data-driven issues presented new pathways to conduct research and implement policy. However, if we want to unplug data we must consider also deeper the underlying social and ethical questions and policy implications alongside those affecting the technical capacity to store and distribute bits of information and the power of data science. This workshop sparked a provocation as well as an effective knowledge exchange. Dystopian visions and technocratic utopias alike demand rigorous research scrutiny and public debate to optimise the chances of shaping a better future city.

The ‘Bridging European Urban Transformations ESRC Workshop Series‘, organised by the Urban Transformations network in partnership with the Brussels Centre for Urban Studies, Cosmopolis and Brussels Academy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, will be held in Brussels until the end of 2017. The next session,in partnership with: VUB-Brussels Centre for Urban Studies, will be held on 13 February 2017 at the Basque Regional Government delegation in Brussels.

This article first appeared on the website of the University of Oxford Urban Transformations website on 28th November 2016.

Co-living with robots in a care home

By: Agnete Petersen, Visiting Student, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

Social robots are not something most people encounter in their everyday life and especially not in the UK. Yet, robots seem to be a subject of great interest, and a phenomenon so ubiquitous within popular culture and science fiction that it might seem inevitable that they someday will be a part of life. Discussions of robots are often accompanied with hopes for miraculous new technological solutions to problems particularly in eldercare (Breazeal 2010; Robertson 2007), or on the other hand, dystopic fears of a cold and contactless society.

Studies of social robotics often take place in controlled experimental settings by roboticists focused on how to make the technical aspects of robots work more efficiently, and by psychologists and health personnel measuring therapeutic “effects” such as anxiety relief. These studies can then in themselves become the inspiration for ethical discussions of robotic use, such as the risk of dehumanising elderly people (Turkle 2012). There are not yet many anthropological studies of robots being a part of everyday life. Studies that examine how robots might influence practice, what importance robots will hold over time and how they might play a part in meaningful affectionate relations as imagined by some roboticists (Shibata; Levy 2007). When considering the value of investment in expensive medical equipment, it is useful and important to try and measure benefits; the cost has to be justified. If, however, we think of the elderly in these situations simply as passive recipients of an intervention where benefits can be conceptualised and measured like those of a new drug, there is a risk of stripping them of their agency by prescribing their role as test subjects in need of fixing. An approach to well-being that sees all change as measurable, even if this change includes enjoyment and social interaction as distinct dimensions for measurement, does not capture the totality of a person’s life.

Over the past three months, I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork and brought a ‘socially assistive’ robot named Paro to a care home 4-5 days a week. Paro is a cuddly and charming seal-like robot who responds to touch, light, and sound by moving, blinking her/his eyes, and making seal noises. Paro’s artificial intelligence ensures it adjusts its responses over time. During these months, the activity coordinator, the residents and I have been incorporating Paro into the weekly activity program and “one-to-one” conversations. The activity coordinator and I have been carrying Paro around showing her/him to residents and visitors, and letting them stroke or sit with him/her. I have talked and reflected with residents, family and staff about what and who Paro is, where Paro is from and how s/he is made, and what s/he has come to mean to them. Although Paro is marketed especially toward dementia therapy, and many people have asked me if Paro “works” or “has the effect I expected”, very few people, regardless of age, seem to be able to resist smiling or laughing, or interacting with Paro by stroking and talking with him/her. How people experience Paro is not reflected as an “effect”:

… After telling us a lot about how to care for animals, T, a resident, asks what we do from here. I tell him we were thinking of showing ‘him’ (Paro) to the other residents. As T always offers to help, I ask him if he would like to help us. He takes Paro from my arms and caries him around as I walk next to him. G and C sit next to each other in a sofa and G laughs and pulls Paro’s whiskers when T presents him. “I dunno why, pulling his whiskers always makes me laugh” he chuckles, and Paro says “Uhhh”. “He is lovely!” C says, and tries to reach out for Paro. T walks around C’s walker and tries to get Paro into her reach. T then asks me where to go now. I suggestively point to J, who is sitting in a wheelchair with a neutral and perhaps a bit melancholy facial expression. She reaches out for Paro and laughs, touches his nose, looks at me and laughs again. She asks for his name. T looks at me and I answer “Ted” – as decided at the last residents’ meeting – a couple of times. T then walks over to D. “What is it?” she asks. “I dunno,” he says. “What exactly is it? I mean, what sorta animal is it?” he asks me. “A seal” I say. “Is it real?” D asks. “It’s genuine” T answers.

The process has not been a controlled clinical trial, rather it has been a collaborative exploration of understanding what Paro can actually come to mean to persons living in a care home, and how s/he can contribute to activities in the care home, in what way, and why this is considered important. Although I am the formal researcher, neither I, the staff nor the residents have had a clear idea from the beginning of what was going to happen. This kind of anthropological studies of co-living with robots gives space for staff and the residents for forming their own interpretation of Paro and the methodological space for everyday reflections about life and well-being from both staff, family and the elderly, and on both good and bad days of dementia. This can furthermore help with qualifying our ethical discussions about the development and shaping of this technology. The future needs to be explored and questioned through actual everyday life.


Breazeal, C. (2010, December). Social robots for health applications. In Conference proceedings:… Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Annual Conference (Vol. 2011, pp. 5368-5371)

Levy, D. (2007). Love and sex with robots: The evolution of human-robot relationships. Harper Collins.

Robertson, J. (2007). Robo sapiens japanicus: Humanoid robots and the posthuman family. Critical Asian Studies, 39(3), 369-398.

Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic books.


This article was first published on 16th November in the blog of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

Innovative use of tech to enhance museum visits for blind and partially sighted visitors

By: University of Oxford

Going to a museum, whether it be a small local exhibit or one of the most famous museums in the world should be a fascinating exploration of knowledge, wonder and discovery. But for the 2 million people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted, this experience can be significantly reduced. A project at the Oxford e-Research Centre aims to improve the museum experience for the blind and partially sighted.

Innovative use of tech to enhance museum visits for blind and partially sighted visitors

 “I get really frustrated when I go to a museum and there’s no way to experience it. Having things you can touch and feel just opens up a whole new world

Mrs Pamphilon, who runs a social group for visually impaired people in Oxfordshire

Currently museums tend to provide raised ‘touch tiles’ which give a physical indication of the visual shapes and textures of an artwork to improve the experience for blind and partially sighted people (BPSP). However, research has shown that the raised images are both difficult to interpret and miss fine nuances of the piece often requiring specialist audio description provided by a trained member of staff. Previously the cost and logistics of this approach also restricted what museums could provide to BPSP visitors.

What will the project do?

The Oxford e-Research Centre, working jointly with the Oxford University Museums, is looking at using inexpensive, innovative technology such as 3D printers and Raspberry Pis to address this challenge. An additional complexity will be that the interface will need to be multi-modal, appealing both to the sense of touch and hearing. Iain Emsley, the lead Research Associate on the project at the Centre said “one of the really interesting things for me is trying to get an interface working across two senses with the timing issues therein. This approach will enable the visitor to hear specific and relevant information about an object as they touch it.”

The initial part of the project, led by the Museums with support from Dr Torø Graven (Department of Experimental Psychology), focuses on understanding the tactile sensations that can be used to assist BPSP to experience the tiles (e.g. line fineness, texture of lines and surfaces, shape of features such as curves and angles, use of colour for partially sighted people), what kind of audio description should accompany the tiles and how it should be activated.

The R&D strand, led by the Centre, will determine how best to develop cheap and efficient methods of creating touch tiles that can provide the tactile sensations identified in strand one. It will also develop practical and replicable approaches to integrating audio delivery into the touch tiles.

What will be the impact and intended reach of the project?

It is hoped that the technology developed through the project will have significant applications both for the BPSP community and broader museum audiences. New tactile ways of engaging and understanding the collections should not only enhance the museum experience for BPSP, but should also provide significant further incentive for them to visit museums and collections more often. In addition to the BPSP community, the project outcomes are also likely to be of significant benefit to visitors with dementia or autism and beyond museums it also holds the potential to support equal access for BPSP students who wish to study arts-based subjects at University.

Our aim is to create a tool that can allow blind and partially sighted people to independently engage with some of the world famous visual arts held by the Oxford University Museums, in particular the Ashmolean. We will be building on our existing knowledge from working with local BPS communities and taking it forward in an exciting new direction. We hope it will not only benefit BPS visitors, but improve the visitor experience for everyone coming to the museums“.

Susan Griffiths, Community Engagement Officer at Oxford University Museums


Image copyright Oxford University Museums.

This article previously appeared on the website of University of Oxford MPLS Division, on 15th November 2016.