Monthly Archives: July 2014

User Experience Review of Google Glass

This is a review that I have been making of the Google Glass device from a User Experience perspective.

This was an unusual experience because I had no clear usage agenda but was interested in discovering what could be done with Google Glass and how it was to used.

Hardware Experience: Although it is not the reason for using a device, the first interaction with one is through the hardware. The first impression is that it is easy to wear and fits well. It’s not heavy or uncomfortable.


The bulk of the left arm holds the CPU and the micro-USB port for plugging in the additional ear piece or the USB cable used for charging and data transfer. The end of the arm contains the battery. The CPU used is a Texas Instruments OMAP System on a Chip (SOC) based on an ARM processor with additional GPU and memory interface functions, and is the same generation of chips as used in the Samsung Galaxy S2 phone from 2011.

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Interaction with the device is by tapping or swiping the arm, or by speech recognition. Output from the device is by sound or visual output on the display. The viewfinder is positioned above the line of vision of the right eye and produces a 640 x 360 pixel image. Some interaction could be made by tipping the head or winking.

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This Glass came with 16GB of FLASH memory, 12GB of which is usable for storing photos and videos or for adding apps. It has a camera capable of capturing 5 megapixel images or 720p video.

Communication Media Experience: Judging the quality of images and video depends entirely on the context of use, but subjectively they seem to be rather disappointing, with less colour range or sharpness than a typical 5MP compact camera, and more reminiscent of a 3MP phone camera. The audio quality is fine for speech but is not of sufficient quality for listening to music or engaging with a video clip.

Interaction Media Experience: The two interaction media that Glass supports are video and audio. The visual display was clear and sharp and was usable outdoors and indoors. The Glass outputs audio either through the skull bone (bone conduction) or through an earpiece that plugs into right hand arm. In either case the audio is clear in a normal domestic or working environment. For use in traffic, the volume would need to be raised, perhaps to unsafe levels.

Glass also has speech recognition, which seemed able to recognise places names and other data as well as programmed instructions. I worked well indoors, but not at all outside in traffic.

Networking Experience: Networking is fundamental to the Glass experience. It has WiFi and Bluetooth capability built in and a USB port for use as an umbilical for transferring data.

In order to experience and use the full range of services, it is expected that the devices couples to a phone using the Bluetooth connection and then access the Internet through the phone. This interaction is configured using a dedicated app (MyGlass) on an android device or an iPhone. When attempting this on an iPhone, MyGlass confirmed the bluetooth pairing and access to the Internet, but no services requiring Internet access worked. As an alternative, the Glass can be configured to work with WiFi either through the phone or a computer. The WiFi access credentials are entered into the website (and are therefore given to Google) and a QR code is generated which is read by Glass to enable access. This worked both through the computer and the phone.

Services such as Navigation did not however function when theGlass was connected to the internet through an iPhone configured to run a personal hotspot. Photos taken with Glass were transferred seamlessly to the google photo service in the cloud and were available through the web, so this type of service worked seamlessly and without the need for explicit manual synchronisation.

As the whole Glass experience is predicated on functional network and Internet access, which could not be achieved through an iPhone, the experience of using a Glass transparently for the full range of mobile services was not possible. This rendered the experience of engaging with Glass as a service provider platform impaired to the extent that it could become irrelevant.

Service Interaction Experience: Interaction with the services/apps supported by glass is achieved by:

  • Tapping and swiping the arm
  • Speaking items from a menu presented on the display (active items are presented in white, inactive menu items in grey)
  • Nodding, where available
  • Winking, where available

From the users perspective these interactions all worked well in ideal conditions. In all cases though, in day to day use there interactions were less than optimal for the following reasons:

  • When using the glass by tapping the Glass arm whilst busy doing other tasks (the act of moving a hand from whatever task it has been busy with to reaching for the Glass arm and making the correct gesture in the correct location on the arm) is a skill that will take time and practice to perfect. Navigating to the picture taking service and then taking a picture with Glass arm taps whilst cycling, for example, is difficult and I believe unrealistic. Enacting tapping and swiping gestures whilst in a conversation is not “normal”. The conversation halts because the participants are reacting to the apparent loss of attention on the part of the glass wearer and the non-Glass-wearing participants in the conversation become distracted and/or concerned trying to understand what service has been interacted with and what media has just been captured, if any.
  • Speaking commands do not work in noisy situations and need to be loud enough to be intrusive in quite situations. There are many situations where spoken commands would not be appropriate (meetings, art performances, church etc).
  • The nodding gesture, as well as being a strange gesture to witness, seems to require extra processing causing Glass to lose power significantly more quickly than if this feature is disabled.
  • Winking as an interaction is a very strange gesture to witness. Winking is generally an involuntary and necessary act which is required to keep our eyes lubricated. This can result in unintended gestures having unwanted consequences.

Service Functionality Experience: Glass has a very limited platform for communicating information to the user, based on a small screen and audible comments. In situations where the information supplements the task in hand (viewing an artefact in a museum, looking at a cityscape) Glass could be valuable. In situations where users are engaged in other tasks and are interrupted by Glass, attention can be lost from the task in hand, or the notification from Glass can be missed and lost. At best this can be irritating, at worst dangerous, for example while driving or operating machinery. An example could be using the recipe app whilst using a blender or food mixer, and then receiving a completely unconnected twitter message or email notification. The driving context is contentious because some have likened the Glass to a phone based or even dedicated SatNav system. The difference is that when used as a SatNav, notifications from other apps can’t happen, as in the case of a dedicated SatNav device, or can be disabled, as in the case of a SatNav app being used on a smart phone. Glass is not mature in this sense at this time.

Glass is perhaps best seen as an information portal device for apps running elsewhere. For that to be successful, the distribution of information between devices and synchronisation and connectivity between devices needs to mature. Glass also requires a user to become immersed in the Google eco-system to gain maximum benefit from services such as calendar and contacts. For users with an existing workflow based in IOS the experience is frustrating because some functionality is available but not all. For people using Windows or Blackberry mobile platforms, it is necessary to move data into the Google services or to duplicate data across the platforms.

Operating System Experience: Operating system interactions are concerned with getting a system into the state where it can be used to achieve usage goals. For some users this configuration and customisation is fun … for most it is not.

As with any operating system, there are issues concerned with navigating to the point in the options available to address the specify aspect to be configured. In Glass this involves swipes backwards and forward and up and down. As there is no single user manual, but rather a set of videos and manual pages online, firstly finding functions and then invoking them can be quite time consuming and tedious.

Conclusion: As a means of displaying contextual information in the visual medium, Glass can work very well. It is not uncomfortable to wear and the display is well placed to be visible without interrupting the field of view. Services such as Navigation and SkyMap and FieldTrip are good examples of this type of service functionality. This does not mean that information appearing on the display does not interrupt attention. Services that require interactions and that generate many notifications are much less successful on Glass. The interaction methods are just too unnatural and awkward, and socially unacceptable and intrusive when engaged in tasks or conversations. For this reason, contextual information services would need a degree of intelligence, centred principally on image and audio recognition to reduce interactions with Glass to a minimum. The push notification aspect needs to be refined considerably because the notifications are not synchronised with task workload, so may cause attention interruptions at critical moments.

Vocational activities where access to contextual information such as maintenance and repair, medical triage and diagnosis or field exploration could benefit from bespoke services on Glass.

The media capabilities of Glass are generally poor; a compact camera or smartphone is much better understood in social situations and in most cases will give considerably better results.

In conclusion, in all the use cases that I have been able to imagine, there are products that do a better job, and none that Glass does better. Even in the most compelling case, contextual information display, too little information is presented through the audio or video at too low quality that I would imagine quickly reaching for another device.


Please feel free to add comments or examples of good practice use of Glass below.

Reflections on the theme of Citizens & Smart Cities


What is a smart city, and what does that concept mean to citizens in the city? This reflection is based on a talk that I gave at the Smart Cities: Bogota conference in October 2013, and a talk that I gave at the SICSA Future Cities: Bottom Up workshop that took place on 22nd July 2014.

When considering cities, it is helpful to imagine the various aspects of cities that matter to the citizens.



Cities are amalgamations of local neighbourhoods that merge into each other, whilst retaining something of the original character and purpose. Some were industrial, some commercial, some residential for more affluent residents, some for poorer people. Naming the neighbourhood invokes meaning for people who know the city.


To many researchers and city administrators, the concept and the realisation of smart cities is defined by data. There is a presumption that more data means a more effectively and satisfactorily managed city, that incidentally is a better place for citizens.


Cities are not countries and countries are defined by the nature and characteristics of their rural areas as much as by their cities.This is a fascinating topic when considered from the perspective of citizens … many citizens live outside the cities but the focus of their life (work, culture, shopping, administration) is in cities. Conversely, cities depend on the produce of rural areas (food, minerals, recreation).


Given the dependence on resources from elsewhere, cities must provide locations for trade, for people to buy the things that they can’t make or grow as they would in a rural setting. Shopping malls are beginning to take a more prominent role in cities however. Many have food halls offering a range of food styles allowing groups to choose quite different meals but still eat together. From a community perspective, malls are being built with open spaces for public political, religious and cultural events.


Public transport is mentioned frequently in rhetoric about cities. Civic leaders have a responsibility to ensure that emergency services can get to where they need to, that pollution is reduced, and that active travelling (walking, cycling) are encouraged in order to promote healthy lifestyles. In the context of smart cities, tracking of buses, ambulances, care service vehicles and even taxis are all priorities in order to ensure that these vehicles can move freely to where they need to be. The question of need implies knowing when citizens need to be where they need to be, which in turn implies measuring/tracking the citizens use of transport in order to provide the vehicles as they are needed. At the same time, the use of CCTV in traffic management and crime prevention is ubiquitous.

From the citizens’ perspectives, transport is a major part of the experience of living in a city or indeed living outside the city and visiting it. Schools, shops and other essential services are invariably available locally, but specialist services such as employment, health clinics, local administrative services and specialist shops are found in specific, often clustered locations serving the whole city or the local region. Using private transport can be frustrating and even restricted (e.g. congestion charges in London or Pico y Placa in Bogota), so good public transport is essential. A primary concern for the citizens however is safety public transport frequently being seen as overcrowded and unsafe, and often expensive (Department of Regional development of Northern Ireland). As alternatives citizens, if they can afford it, choose taxis and city planners promote car sharing and “park and ride” schemes. Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris has undertaken a number of studies on this topic in the Los Angeles area, particularly focussing on the issues affecting the perception of safety by women.



In 2012 an anonymous researcher mapped the Internet by sending a botnet out to unsecured internet devices. The resultant map of the activities levels of 420,000 devices is presented in the animation above. The devices reporting their existence included web cams, set top boxes and servers, but also domestic computers and mobile devices. A notable aspect of this map is that it reflects where people live, particularly cities. Additionally it shows that the internet is always busy, handling information to and between people 24 hours a day.


One way to visualise the conversations that take place between people is to observe the density of Facebook traffic. This reveals many conversations within communities across the world as links between city pairs, with the greater density of conversations being shown as brighter blue or white lines. For example, there is a clear set of conversations between Spanish speakers covering Spain, Latin America and the Hispanic communities in the USA. There is a very strong set of lines between Mediterranean holiday destinations and the UK, reflecting the way that people post their holiday experiences for “friends” at home. Another notable connection is between cities in India and people elsewhere, reflecting the conversations between home and migrant Indians working particularly in the Middle East.

This graphic clearly illustrates that part of the focus of people living in a physical location, often a city, is not only on that city. Migrants have always looked “home”, connecting to communities of interest in another place.

Foundational work in understanding communities and sense of belonging to community (Glynn 1981, McM
illan, 1986
) centred on physical communities. Whilst seeking to understand what aspects of community membership gave citizens a sense of belonging, the findings and the resulting models tended to focus on informing civic leaders so that they could better manage and structure community spaces and provisions. Aspects such as safety, satisfaction with community services, agreement with the values of the community, identification with the practices and behaviours of the community and a sense of having a role or worth within the community. Work by Ahlbrandt and Cunningham (1979) emphasised that within cities, citizens tend to identify with neighbourhoods rather than the wider city as a whole. This correlates with the work of Dunbar (1996) who demonstrated that we maintain various types of circles of relationships (loved ones, friends and acquaintances) of increasing size and decreasing level of commitment. We tend to lose touch with people when our circle of friends goes beyond around 50 and we tend to forget or continue to care about people (who they are, their role in our lives) when our circle of acquaintances goes beyond around 250.

Communication and conversation are the keys to community. As technology mediated conversations become increasingly available (firstly through telegraph and telephone and then through internet voice and video telephony services), the geographical location of communities become more nebulous and communities evolve from physical circles to technology mediated communities of interest. Work is ongoing to revisit the models and understandings of physical communities and to review their validity for ensuring the well being of citizens in communities whose focus is on interest or practice (Wneger and Lave 1991), particular where the communications essentially takes place online.


Communities are not nebulous concepts, they have marked and essential characteristics irrespective of an essentially physical or geographical centre or an essentially online focus. The work of Segal and colleagues (1999) reminds us that these include a focus, clear and agreed boundaries, conditions for membership that also allow it to define and recognise non-members. The focus could be physical (national, regional or local), cultural, ideological or functional. The boundaries could be physical, but are often manifestations of language (Mercer 2000). Interestingly, these attributes of communities seem to come spontaneously from the citizens themselves.


Communities do however seem to need leaders and administrations in order to maintain the functioning and the focus of the community. Citizens have many and varied interests and indeed responsibilities within a variety of communities, simultaneously. For this reason the focus of citizens is pulled in various directions. Leaders however have a responsibility for, and indeed an interest in, the well-being of a specific community, and this becomes the focus of their conversation with members. This responsibility is often manifest in protective practices designed to preserve the community and its focus. This leads to a strong sense of delineation between the community and other communities, especially those who are apparently close in ideology and interest.


The practices of cities as communities have become encapsulated in laws and traditions over time. The passing on of those community norms has likewise been practiced not only by civic leaders but by generations of citizens teaching their children, informally as well as formally. Cities today face an additional challenge beyond that represented by the altered focus of citizens where community conversations are unrestrained by geography and are mediated by technology. The emerging challenge is the changing demographic of society. By 2031 it is predicted that the majority of citizens will be middle aged or older and will view technology in the light of past traditions and practices rather than as drivers of society’s behaviour. This has the potential to divide communities as they adopt technologies to support the conversations of physical communities as well as to engage in online communities, including the degree to which citizens see themselves centred on physical or online communities. Traditions are being challenged.


These changes have the potential to cause real tensions between citizens and community leaders. Where city community leaders expect the focus of citizens to be on the prevalent culture of (national, regional and local) communities, many local citizens have travelled to that city from another place and for that reason may have strong roots in another culture. At the same time, many indigenous local citizens take the city for granted and look out from the city to engage with people in other places or other online communities.

Citizens may legitimately have different identities. At work they may have positions of responsibility and be required to speak with diplomacy and tact. Socially people may have an expertise in an area of social or recreational interest. When with trusted friends people may candidly explore a topic or express negative opinions about people or situations. Within families conversations between different generations may be characterised by constraint when discussing social activities. Where civic leaders or service providers amalgamate data about an individual into a single identity however the careful and legitimate self-identity management can be lost.

The current tension has been fuelled by community protection behaviours on the part of community leaders that are causing citizens to question the extent to which they are having their freedoms within the community and particularly their freedom to have an interest in another community challenged or restricted. A practical example is the steep rise in visa costs and intrusive questioning in visa applications for those wishing to visit their friends an relatives resident in another community. At a city level, access to local school, libraries and other local services are only available to those who live within the city boundaries and pay local city taxes. Children in one part of a city may gain automatic enrolment into a school recognised for academic excellence whilst those in another may be excluded from such an opportunity. Public services such as safe buses may be available in one part of a city but not in another. In extreme circumstances safe and restrained policing may be the norm in one part of a city, but in another part citizens may feel victimised or ignored by law enforcement or emergency services.


Central to the tension is the issue of data. Data is simply numbers or letters. Data gains meaning when it is set in context. Data about people, personal metadata, is anonymous and simply acts as a sample of a member of a population. The richer the metadata becomes however, the more likely the life of the person from whom it was gathered emerges and the more likely that a person can be identified. This potential loss of privacy can be deeply troubling for citizens.

At the same time some might be concerned that decision based on very general data o
r on assumptions based on what the data might mean could work against the interests of citizens. Incomplete statistics may suggest that part of the demographic are habitually associated with crime and action may be taken against those people without considering other factors that might give an explanation or a context. At the same time it might be assumed that individuals are involved in crime simply on the bases of a profile that has some key common attributes (age, ethnicity, gender) with other criminals.

Much of the rhetoric around smart and future cities is that more data will provide better insights into the needs of citizens and lead to better provision of resources to the citizens. The language and examples given however have, on occasions, caused concern because there is an implication that the data is about better city management, even if that may at times inconvenience the citizens.

It is vital to recognise the limitations of data. Data is an abstraction, part of the reality, a model, not the definition of reality. Data about a person such as their age, height and weight says nothing about their intellect, ambitions or explains their behaviour. The richer the data the more complete the picture, but also the more likely that the data is not anonymous and abstract but information identifiably about an individual.


In order to illustrate the difference between a citizen’s view of data and a service provider’s view of data, consider the number 12. Some may claim that this is, to them, the most important number because it signifies an important reality. This data however has no meaning to people other than the individual who considers it important, so no value can be gained from sharing that number. When however it is coupled with the number 10 and represented as 12/10, others may recognise it as a date and guess that it is the birthdate of the individual. Once that has happened, the numbers have gained significance and meaning, has become information and the individual may anticipate some celebration of their birthday, including being given presents. Sharing this data as information has rewards for the individual doing the sharing.


On the other hand, service providers are not tasked to give individuals presents. They are tasked to provide, or restrict access, to services, perhaps based on the age of the individual. People are, in general, reluctant to share their age so they are likely to be reluctant to share the data necessary for age to be calculated. If sharing that data restricts access to services or opportunities (jobs, medical care, cheap insurance, access to finance) or even access to social services (clubs or dating services) individuals will become reluctant to share that data.


Agreeing a definition of security is difficult. A debate has taken place on wikipedia for the last 4 years and the quoted definition was posted on 26th Dec 2012. One aspect that some commentators stress is that security is both functional and a feeling. People’s behaviour is largely determined by the extent that they feel secure, and is strongly associated with safety.

Because citizens’ sense of security can be based on a sense or a perception rather than on data, they can at times be quite reckless. For example, drivers fell secure and unlikely to come to harm whilst driving, despite the evidence that public transport is, in general, considerably safer with a much lower risk of them coming to harm. On the other hand, security and safety, particularly risk of causing harm to others can be a potent tool for directing the behaviour of citizens, imposing processes and procedures upon them, or indeed restricting their freedom.


It is often said that citizens have nothing to fear from data if they are behaving within the law. This is naive and simplistic, and is generally quoted by people with an interest in gathering data at the expense of personal privacy. Concerns that could be expressed by citizens include:

  • It is completely appropriate for citizens to bound one area of their life apart from another. For example, keep a strong delineation between their home and family life and their professional life. For some people, their home may be their place of work, for others this is strongly not the case. When using a smartphone to capture the output of planning sessions on a whiteboard, citizens should be entirely free to synch these photos in a cloud service that does not mix them with photos of their families.
  • People’s marital and relationship status changes throughout life. Some terms of use of online data services give the service provider the right to use citizen’s content (text, photos, video clips) in perpetuity in the original form or in other forms. So its conceivable that 10 years after a marriage has ended, a citizen may find themselves featured in an advertisement in a public place whilst accompanied by a new partner. Alternatively a new partner may receive an unsolicited call from a service provider asking for a previous partner based on out of date records of past services. This may not be life threatening but it could be uncomfortable and distressing.
  • Citizens may not want details of journeys taken when exercising as part of a fitness regime to be automatically sent to a health insurance company who has a cooperation agreement with a cloud data storage provider.
  • A number of high street clothing and grocery chains have trialed the use of RFID tags to track stock and to detect the theft of high price goods (Narsing 2011). In the case of theft detection, durable tags are sewn into goods so that they can’t readily be removed before taking the item from the store. Engineers working on the early trials suggested that the tags could subsequently have an interesting marketing role. If an item such as a coat was worn in a store more than three years after purchase, perhaps the customer could be approached by a member of staff and encouraged to buy a new coat, perhaps one close to the prevailing fashion. Alternatively, the RFID tag could traced back to the customer’s loyalty card and the customer could subsequently get an email with the same suggestion of buying a new coat. Whilst this may have been attractive as an engineering and marketing proposal, the reaction of consumers to this suggestion was not, at the time, generally favourable.


Between 1997 and 2000, Benefon in Finland, as part of the European Union funded MORE (Mobile Rescue Phone) integrated GPS into a mobile phone for the first time. This was in order to provide a location service for older or disabled people who might find themselves in difficulty and need rescuing. The phone featured a large red button that could be pressed in order to call for help from a dedicated rescue service (envisioned to be provided by existing rescue service providers). No phone tracking was done until the button was pressed, but at that moment the service provider would be presented with a location superimposed on a map, and appropriate help could be sent to the caller. The phone was large, bulky and heavy, but conceptually it was very favourably received.

In 2013 Google produced the GLASS device, featuring a visual interface, camera, enough memory to hold photographs, video clips and a variety of information and social apps, including (GPS) location based services, integrated within the Google ecosystem of cloud based apps and data storage. It is designed to be comfortable to wear for extended periods. The primary data interaction model however, unlike the MORE phone, is push based, where data is sent to the wearer. It is a considerably more powerful device than the MORE phone and as such is a multi-service platform. Form a user’s perspective, however, the GLASS delivers notifications to the user as they become available on whatever topic it has been configured to present, in general irrespective of current task or usage context. The notifications can be configured, but that involves users in convoluted “enabling tasks” which may need to be reversed when the usage context changes.

These two products represent what was a state of the art device when they were released, but a very different usage perspective. The MORE phone puts the service usage firmly in the hands of the user with little or no configuration and to be used in stressful situations by users who were generally unlikely to be experts in technology usage. Any data generated by the MORE phone was used only by the emergency service agency according to medical data handling standards and referred only to the specific incident associated with the emergency call. GLASS however is designed to be an extension of a Google based data lifestyle, encompassing Android devices and Chrome based cloud services. The potentially troubling aspect for users is that considerable data about the user, including fine grain information about location and lifestyle, coupled with data including the name and passwords associated with wifi access by GLASS is all held within the Google cloud services, ready to be used by Google to support its advertising driven business in cooperation with 3rd party partners of Google according to de facto business practices within the various emerging legal protocols of the countries within which Google operates, not necessarily of the country within which the user resides.


Given this migration from an essentially physical existence to one where data and online services play a prominent role in the life of city dwellers, there is a need to re-examine the notion of personal space. Whilst details vary from culture to culture, people understand that there are rules and norms governing physical proximity and human behaviour. When people look for a seat in a waiting room, they are unlikely to sit next to another person if there is a free seat available that would leave space between them. Conversations between people are conducted in a way that reduces the chance of another person hearing, even if the topic is not at all sensitive or private. The behaviour of people who are drunk in public is generally noticeable because they don’t adhere to the conventions of personal space.

Recently, the norms of personal space have been challenged by people using technology. Mobile phone conversations are sometimes conducted in a way that seems to assume that the mobile phone user has a much larger personal space than would be generally recognised as normal. Another example is cold calling by advertisers or marketers to phone numbers that known to be associated with a place of work, calls being placed during working hours. This violates the principles of avoiding personal phone calls whilst at work, as work has its own norms for behaviour within the personal space.

Online personal space is as yet a poorly understood concept. When people “meet” on a public forum and are subsequently joined by a stranger, it is not unusual to find the stranger commenting on what is certainly a personal conversation and may be to some degree private. In a face to face situation the stranger would avoid listening, or at least avoid showing that they are listening, perhaps even moving away. This simple example illustrates the fact that face to face behaviour does not automatically become the norm for online behaviour. It seems that the defining criteria of reasonable behaviour has more to do with legitimacy because it is technically possible than because it is appropriate. If this uncertainty or cavalier attitude to interpersonal behaviour norms, personal space and privacy extends into the realms of data collection about citizens then citizens will rightly become suspicious of the motives and ethical boundaries within which service providers, including civic leaders, operate.

Gossip is evident in societies the world over (Emler 1994, Emler 2001, Dunbar 1996). When gossiping, the person being gossiped about is identified. Information about another person is shared in personal way, often in a way that is not flattering or constructive for them. This is a known phenomenon, and citizens seek to preserve their reputation and reduce the incidence or impact of gossip on their well-being. Data collected and shared and used online is effectively rarely truly anonymous and can invariably be used to reconstruct the life story or identity of the person from whom it was gathered. This can have a devastating effect on a person’s reputation if it is treated as if it were the subject of gossip.


An alternative perspective of the role of technology in cities and in society is to consider it as a means of access information of interest to citizens and to support conversations between citizens, rather than to gather data about citizens. In the work that I have been involved in I have explored the following:

  • In 2000 I was involved in an initiative to introduce the Internet into the Glens in the county of Angus in Scotland. These Glens, valleys in the southern Cairngorms, can be quite isolated, particularly in winter. The interest in the Internet, the location of the access terminals and the conditions for access were discussed in meetings with the local residents and civic leaders and strategies for installation and training agreed. Subsequently, follow up meetings took place to understand what value the Internet had bough to the communities and the individuals. Two examples stood out in particular. One teenager was keen to share his interest in Formula 1 motor racing and was thrilled to be able to argue the merits of his favourite driver (Michael Schumacher) increasingly persuasively based on information that he had garnered online. Another lady explained that she produced knitted garments to sell but had had difficulty negotiating a fair price that reflected the value of her work until  she  discovered another individual in a nearby glen in the same situation. The products t
    hey produced were complementary so together they were able to contact buyers in London and proper legal support and negotiate a reasonable deal for their goods.
  • One reality of the changing demographic around the world is that there will be more older people living independently in the community for longer with chronic conditions, with less younger people to provide care. Technology may play a role in helping to prioritise care resources to where it is needed, rather than providing blanket home care services to all within a generic demographic profile. The role telecare could play would be to detect change in the behaviour of older people in their own homes and alert carers or care services so that interventions can be made. The problem is that people are very unpredictable, however much they would like to establish routines and ordered lifestyles. These unpredictabilities make it difficult to know what any changes mean in terms of the well-being of the individual. This could (and does) result in ceres being alerted when there is in fact no problem. The common engineering approach to this is to attempt to sense behaviour in the home, identify specific activities and then deduce well-being by the way that activities are performed. The activities generally chosen are what are known as Activities of Daily Living (ADLs). there are a number of fundamental problems with this approach. Firstly it is fundamentally intrusive. Older people, particularly those with chronic health or social conditions know that they have to surrender some privacy to health or care professionals, but not to technicians or engineers who are not governed by the established ethical frameworks within which carers operate. Rather than identify specific activities as a routine, we propose an approach that looks at levels of general busyness. Changes in busyness (the general levels of activity, movement, occupancy of spaces within the dwelling etc) reflect changes in the life of a person and serve as sufficient trigger a more focussed conversation with the home home dweller. Secondly, each person is an individual, and lifestyle changes mean very different things for different people. In some work that we did at a residential facility in Plympton, Devon we imagined that we would fit a standard set of sensors in a number of dwellings and be able to quickly draw standard conclusions from predictable lifestyle changes. In fact we had to undertake an ethnographic study, identify the specific frailty or need of the home dweller and then sensor and interpret accordingly on an individual basis. Thirdly, the extraction of meaning from human behaviour is very difficult, particularly when the behaviours reflecting the specific needs are so diverse and the populations of people sharing common conditions at the same level of severity and therefore same level of care need are so small. This presents engineers and computer scientists with the type of challenge that they become passionate about exploring, but we have seen that they can become immersed in the technical challenge of finding phenomena in data, without getting close to being able to distill the meaning of the phenomena as it reflects a care need for an individual. Carers need information, and what they get is an engineers interpretation based on imagination and stereotypical view of older people. Lastly, ADL’s are not good indicators of Quality of Life. People often do ADL’s because they have to, and they may do so at the exclusion of activities which for them may be more fulfilling. Some will visit a doctor or go shopping or clean the house, activities which can take half a day to complete, rather than visit a friend. To address these concerns we proposed an initial distillation of phenomena from the data, made available in an appropriate form or level of detail to all stakeholders with a care interest in an individual as the basis for a conversation with the home dweller. All in all, the approach that we would advocate is that data is contextualised and introduced into a conversation between people as information in what we call the “dialogue of care”.
  • We have been working with artisanal coffee farmers and associated stakeholders in Colombia to understand the fluctuations that they are seeing in the quality of coffee that they are producing. There is a growing belief that climate change in the region, modulated by the el Niño and la Niña effects are causing this fluctuation. The problem is that Colombia does not have the capacity to compete with countries such as Brazil, Vietnam or Indonesia in terms of volume. The Colombian Coffee brand is one of the defining brands within the coffee trading brands so it has exceptional value to to Colombia. This value and the price paid for the coffee produced in Colonbia depends on consistency in quality.  We have been attempting to gather data on a variety of factors that could be affecting quality such as weather, yield, local regulations and policies and practices and conditions on the individual farms. This is not principally a data processing issue. The data only provides insights into the situation. All stakeholders have a role in weighting the significance of the data and then moving forward with change. The coffee plant is a tree and changes in the farms may take several years to yield results. Arguments for change must be based on solid evidence and presented in ways that are credible, and then education programmes need to be put in place to ensure migration of best practice in the context of local realities. In this way, farmers, and indeed all dependent stakeholders can gain a sense of security in the future of the Colombian Coffee industry that is currently not there.
  • Recent work taking place in Dundee in the New Routes Project involves using technology with people from disadvantaged social and economic situations to enable them to capture their lives as photographs and to present their stories both in exhibitions and online. In this way not only might some find a means of exercising their voice to their advantage but they may be taking the first steps towards a vocation in media.

What these examples illustrate is that technology, smartness in terms of the role of technology in life, has more to do with information and conversation than it has to do with data. Conversation and information underpin the behaviour of society, not data.


Studies and reflections by Emler (1994 and 2001), some of which were done in Dundee, demonstrate that only 7% of human interaction is at the level of transactions (the act of shopping, of negotiating access to a bathroom, finding and boarding a train, a medical procedure), interactions where the participants could be anonymous and no meaning is explored. 93% of human interactions convey something significant about the people involved and the meaning that any information exchanged has for them. In this case the data is not data but personalised information.

Smart or future cities where data is the driver are not cities that represent the way that people are or the way that they live and interact. People are their stories, data contextualised by life. Data that is not information is potentially dangerous because any guess at the meaning of the data will not be in the context of the life that generated it or whose individual life it will affect. Rich data about people gathered without clear and understood purpose is an invasion of privacy and a redefinition of personal space that citizens have not debated and signed up to.

In principle therefore, it seems that there is something both dishonest and in some senses oppressive about the focus on data in the conversations about smart and future cities. Invariably it is not data, it is information. We should stop talking about data but should focus mor on the implications of information gathering and sharing within the smart or future cities concepts and implimentations. To suggest that data is anonymous and always in the interest of the well-being of the citizens is patently not true. There are many agencies who have an interest in manipulating citizens in order to sell to them or to change or manage their behaviour. Data is rarely anonymous, and when brought together with other data can quickly lead to individuals being identified. The truth is, what is being collected is information. No agency is interested in data alone, they are interested in what the data means, what it says about a specific context. Some of the information is benign or a powerful instrument for promoting the well-being and Quality of Life of citizens. Some of it used inappropriately, the source of distress, danger and inequality.

It seems to me, the smartness comes when we map technology to the human condition, the human practice, where technology should be the enabler of conversations and information needs.

Any comments or reflections are welcomed.


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