Monthly Archives: June 2009

Hacking the City – redux

I was delighted to read that the Personal Democracy Forum’s 2009 Conference (twitter slurp here) includes a Birds of a Feather meetup on the topic of “Hacking the City.”  I first heard community technologists use this phrase in 2005, when Mike wrote a post about how community Wi-Fi is a way of hacking the social space of cities.  What he was referring to was the way that community interventions in provision of communications infrastructure could change how people socialized – since so much of our interactions are mediated by various types of networks.

But “hacking the city” like so many good ideas, has taken on another life.  It’s now used to describe how networked technologies can be harnessed so that citizens can take action in their own cities. There’s, where volunteers in cities around the world build open source tools and advocate for open data , New York City’s The Open Planning Project (who advocate for open source software in government, and run several citizen-participation blogs) and MySociety’s  FixMyStreet, which features maps where my neighours have flagged two instances of fly-tipping and two piles of dog poo within 1 km of my house.

After doing some work this year about other types of digital activism, I’m returning this summer to thinking about the politics of local networks – it’s time, and furthermore it matters!  Can anyone think of other good examples of hacking the city?

UPDATE:  Exciting!  Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona in November.

Quantifying everything: Wolfram alpha and algorithms

Wolfram Alpha is pretty great:  you type in a problem and it finds a solution.  It does this by transforming the natural language problem into computational elements and entries in its curated data set, and then running the computations.  Ta-Daa!  The solution appears, provided that the problem includes elements that are 1. reducible to computation and 2. include elements that are in the database.  Improving on 2. is easy enough, the argument goes:  simply add more things into the database.  If you want to calculate the likelihood that a word will occur in a Yeats poem, simply add more Yeats poems to the database and eventually you’ll get a meaningful result.

It’s principle 1. that’s potentially more problematic.  It raises the question about the extent to which all knowledge can be quantified.  In other words, it doesn’t explain why the repetition of words in a Yeats poem might be important.

Ahh, you say.  But that’s not science!  True, science is about quantifiablity.  But it is also about inquiry, about determining how to ask questions that are verifiable.  And it is about applying those questions generatively in order to develop new knowledge.  Wolfram Alpha’s founder has written about a new kind of science, which is based on simple rules that can be embodied in computer programs. I’m ready to be convinced, but I’m concerned that the Age of the Algorithm could mean the end of the Age of Inquiry.

My most memorable university exam included a question which asked me to differentiate special relativity from general relativity, and to explain how Einstein developed one from another.  I attempted to get Wolfram Alpha to compute this, but the closest result I got was this.  So far, inquiry is safe.